Wednesday, October 20, 2021

BNOC defends decision to reject free spot in London Olympics

Taking cue from the Botswana National Olympics Committee’s no-names-no-pack-drill approach, the swimmer in question will only be referred to as The Athlete.

An allegation made by Botswana Swimming Sports Association sources is that ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London, BNOC sponsored The Athlete for a five-month training programme in Australia. While she didn’t qualify, the Athlete was offered a wildcard by FINA – the French acronym for the F├®d├®ration Internationale de Natation. That raised the heckles of a BSSA Committee member who felt that her own daughter (The Junior Athlete as BNOC prefers) should have been the one given that wild card because at the time she had swam faster times than The Athlete. The mother is actually supposed to have written to FINA to justify why her daughter should be the one getting the wild card.  The problem though was that in 2011, The Athlete had participated in a pre-qualifying event in China while The Junior Athlete hadn’t. Ultimately, neither athlete went to the London Olympics on account of that stalemate.

Lame Ramokate, BNOC’s Communications and Marketing Manager confirms that The Athlete was among a group of athletes drawn from various sporting codes that the Committee sponsored for local and international competitions with a view to help them “improve their performances and potentially qualify for the London 2012 Olympic Games.” She also confirms that BNOC ended up rejecting her wild card because at the time she was “not the best female swimmer” in Botswana and that she had not met minimum standards set by BNOC itself.

“At least one athlete [The Junior Athlete who is two years younger] was better than her then, and had been for some time in the period leading up to the 2012 Olympic Games. Secondly, despite the BNOC having spent significant amounts of money assisting The Athlete to work at qualifying for the Games, she neither qualified nor made any significant improvements to her times. Finally and even if the above two points are overlooked, The Athlete’s best times were nowhere near those of the athletes that had qualified for the Games, something that pointed to a dismal and potentially demoralising performance if allowed to go to the Games,” Ramokate says.

It would appear that The Athlete’s fate was decided two years prior with the adoption of the Major Games Qualification Standards which, as Ramokate explains, were adopted by national sport associations that make up BNOC ÔÇô the BSSA being one of them. She adds that representatives of these associations had themselves developed those standards and were subsequently workshopped on them.

As it turns out, swimming (and The Athlete by extension) is the only code to have been affected by the wildcard policy in the manner described. That was on account of FINA making an offer that BNOC felt it could say no to. Ramokate explains that currently, the Committee is using qualification standards that were developed for the 2013-2016 period (available on its website) and “indeed there is still policy around the wild card arrangement.”

“Again, there have been athletes and/or teams who could either not be supported to attempt to qualify for and/or go to Games (e.g. 2014 Commonwealth Games) on the basis of the fact that they failed to meet the set minimum standards. The standards are being used for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and it is the basis of which sports like taekwondo, cycling, rugby, tennis, men’s volleyball team and many others as well as many athletes from athletics, boxing, swimming, Judo could not be supported as they did not meet minimum standards for consideration,” she says.

She adds that prior to 2009 and amongst other major multi-sport games, BNOC had facilitated Botswana’s participation at eight Olympic and eight Commonwealth Games.

“For the Olympic Games, Botswana had up to that stage never won a single medal at the Games, and over the years, our performance was improving very modestly. Unlike at the Olympic Games, Botswana occasionally won medals at the Commonwealth Games, a total of which was seven for the eight editions, giving us an average of 0.9 medals per Games,” Ramokate says.

In 2010, the BNOC undertook a review to diagnose the poor-performance problem and prescribe the remedy.

“One of the findings was that the wild card/universality/quota arrangements were breeding a bad culture of entitlement, which did not provide incentive for athletes to work hard enough or even try to qualify for the Olympic Games as they would be assured of a wild card. For example, if an athlete knew they were the best in Botswana, there was no incentive for them to work hard as they could always secure themselves places to Games on account of being the best in Botswana, when compared to other competitors around the world, they would be far below the elite standard,” Ramokate says.

That was why BNOC  developed qualifying standards for major games whose introduction, Ramokate asserts, has brought “phenomenal” results: in 2010 Botswana won her first Commonwealth Games gold medal (setting her first games record in the process) and attained her biggest medal haul at Commonwealth Games; in 2011, Botswana won her first World Championship in athletics; and in 2012, Botswana won her first World Junior Championship in athletics and set her first world record as well as her first Olympic Games medal.

Elaborating on the latter, Ramokate says that because of the new, more meritocratic standards, a quality team of four athletes was sent to London as opposed to 12 that were sent to Beijing in 2008.

“The team of four had two of its members reaching their events finals, with one [Nijel Amos] winning a silver medal and another finishing fourth. The performance by these four athletes placed Botswana on position 69, out of 204 countries that competed at the Games and ahead of some countries that had larger delegations such as Greece with over 100 athletes,” she says.

While that seems a perfectly reasonable explanation, BSSA sources say that the wild card policy was never communicated to clubs and that it doesn’t make sense to deny athletes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Using such opportunity would have given [The Athlete] exposure to high-level competitive swimming that she can’t get anywhere else. BSSA itself acknowledges that swimming in Botswana is underdeveloped and even if she had lost, she would have at least benefitted from the experience,” a source says.

Ramokate views the issue differently: “Having failed to improve her times any significantly over many months leading up to the Games, one competition of a few days and in which she would have been eliminated after only one race would not have helped her improve. If anything, she would have been demotivated and or psychologically affected as she was likely to finish that one race way after most (if not all) of the competitors had finished.”

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