UK Athletics has weakened its Paris talent pool – no Olympic invite should be turned down

Hannah Nuttall
Hannah Nuttall's best performance in the 5,000m this year would have placed her ninth at the last Olympics, but she will not be going to Paris - Getty Images/Gary Oakley

There is a link on the World Athletics website called ‘Road to Paris’ which, whilst unknown to most of the planet, is probably the most viewed page in the world by a certain supremely dedicated community of athletes.

For it is where, week after week since July 1 last year, every world track and field performance was inputted to produce a constantly evolving event-by-event world ranking list from which an Olympic dream can be realised.

And it really is an exceptionally high bar to be ranked good enough for an Olympic field of around 36 athletes in this truly global sport of some 214 affiliated nations. As of Friday morning, seven British athletes had the words “qualified by world rankings” next to their name alongside those who had met predetermined standards designed to reflect the best eight in a specific event. At least three other British athletes would also have been added.

Log on to the ‘Road to Paris’ website now, however, and those names have all been erased, as if they never existed, and instead been replaced by lesser-performing rivals from across the world, including big sporting nations like China, Germany, Jamaica, France, Brazil, South Africa and Italy.

Why? Because UK Athletics has a policy which rules that its athletes should not become Olympians if they are not also deemed capable of a top-eight finish, even in events where we will otherwise have no representation.

It would certainly be a rather shorter Olympics if every nation applied this logic.

Those now-devastated athletes include Anna Purchase, a 24-year-old hammer thrower from Nottingham who is ranked 16th in the world and stands second on Britain’s all-time list.

They include the self-funded Devon steeplechaser Phil Norman, who missed UKA’s qualifying standard by 0.15sec despite a National Championship-record winning performance last week that was the best by any Briton for 33 years.

They include Jake Norris, a 25-year-old hammer thrower, who is ranked in the world’s top 18 and has thrown a distance this year that would have finished seventh at the Tokyo Games but still missed UKA’s ‘top eight’ Paris forecast by 13cm.

They include the 5,000m runner Hannah Nuttall, who lost her father and coach John last December, but still delivered a career-best performance this year that would have placed her ninth in Tokyo and has only ever been bettered by eight other British athletes.

They include Jade Lally, another athlete who combines her passion with working full-time, who produced a discus throw this year that was the best by a Briton since 1983 (and would have placed her seventh at the last Olympics) but missed UKA’s top-eight estimate by 5cm.

And they include Kenneth Ikeji, a 21-year-old from Dagenham who lost out by 38cm with a hammer throw that would also have secured a top-seven finish at the most recent summer Games.

Unsurprisingly, the response to all this has not so much divided athletics in this country but united it in outrage.

Within less than 48 hours, a petition demanding that the policy be overturned had reached more than 7,000 signatures. UKA has doubled down and a campaign to ensure that this can never happen again is gathering momentum.

It is hard to know where to start with the flaws in a selection policy that should prompt urgent reflection not just inside UKA but UK Sport and the British Olympic Association. A founding Olympic value, after all, is supposedly the primacy of the struggle and the participation over the triumph and the winning.

And yet UKA appeared to move even further from that sentiment at the weekend with an extraordinary suggestion about what it might take for an Olympian to inspire others. “An athlete getting to the Olympics with little chance of qualifying from their heat or pool, does not have a significant impact on inspiring the nation, and therefore does not merit public funding,” wrote the chair Ian Beattie.

Even UK Sport, with its historic ‘no compromise’ slogan (long since updated to ‘medals and more’), shuddered at being aligned with that one.

“There are a whole range of athletes; familiar big names we’ve already got used to, brand new ones we’ve never heard of,” countered Dame Katherine Grainger, the chair of UK Sport on Monday. “Whatever they achieve or not this summer … every athlete has an amazing potential to have an inspirational effect from whatever they do. That we all feel very strongly about.”

UKA argues that its strategy will drive standards up but, as we can now see with painful clarity, there is a fine line between fostering a culture of excellence and causing damaging disillusionment with a policy deemed rigid and unjust. Three of those impacted have already said that they will now retire. There are also real fears that emerging athletes and coaches will look at all this and reconsider their chosen sport or, if they have the choice, even their country of sporting allegiance.

UKA also suggested that taking athletes who it deems unlikely to reach their final could demotivate the rest of the team and dilute resources for ‘genuine medal contenders’. But what of the value of big championship experience? British Olympic greats like Daley Thompson (18th in 1976), Jonathan Edwards (23rd and 35th in 1988 and 1992), Tessa Sanderson (10th in 1976), Dame Mary Peters (ninth in 1968) and Mo Farah (17th in his heat in 2008) all returned to win gold medals after not troubling the top eight in their first Olympic experience.

How might those careers have panned out under the current system? And how can we look at its real-life implementation without concluding that there is something very wrong both with this policy and the sporting philosophy that sits behind it?

They are questions that we should not forget as attention turns over the next month to the ultimate sporting celebration, and party for which no invite should be turned down.

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