A few points about… points

It’s not all that long until Rio hosts the XXXI Olympiad. For cross country mountain biking, this weekend just gone marked the end of the qualification period for participating nations. Those with an interest in the riders who will be representing New Zealand have been watching the racing of the last few months closely, and invariably in the days after a major event comments start appearing in news feeds questioning why our two best male racers can’t both go to the Games.

If you’ve been confused about this, or wondered how it all works, don’t worry – you’re definitely not alone! But to try and make things a bit easier, here is the low down:

In order to be on that start line in Rio, two major things have to occur. And thus, our lesson begins…

First, qualification. Places on the start line need to be earned through a qualification process. Nations have to obtain enough UCI points to be high enough in the rankings of all the nations to qualify either 1, 2 or 3 (1 or 2 only for the women) places on the start line. The number of places qualified is the maximum number of riders that can be selected. Speaking of which, that’s the second of these two major hurdles. Selection. Once each country knows how many riders they can send, they have to decide who, if anyone, they are going to select. It’s not mandatory to fill earned start places, and each country has it’s own criteria. For example, the Swiss have 8 guys in the top 20 right now. The only one you know for sure will take one of their 3 spots is Nino. The rest of them have to place top 5 in an world cup before the selectors will even consider them! Other countries have top 5 results as guaranteed selection (assuming a spot is there) but in some of those countries it never happens and selection falls to something like accumulated points over a set period and often only from a narrow criteria of races.

Points… it’s all about points. UCI points. My point being, without the points there are no spots to fill. Umm, barring a couple of exceptions I’ll cover off later.

For the Olympic qualification process (that’s just to have spots to be selected in to) riders have two 12 month periods to earn UCI points. UCI points are awarded at UCI races, and the category of the race determines how deep in to the results the points are awarded, and how many. World Champs and World Cups carry the highest points, and go deeper in the field than any other races. Continental champs are next (one of the only benefits of our geographic location – more chance of good points in a field of 10 than a field of 50 or a hundred). Following, there are fewer and fewer points on offer as you go down through the categories – HC (Hors Category – like the toughest climbs in the Tour de France), Cat 1, and Cat 2 (there are some Cat 3s but they are in the marathon discipline). The UCI charges a fee to host those races, and the higher the category the higher the fee.

New Zealand riders get one guaranteed race per year to earn points at home, two in alternate years due to our arrangement with Australia to host Oceania Champs (our continental champs) turn-about. Very neighbourly!

There are a lot of Cat 1 and Cat 2 events all over the world, and the US has been hosting some HC events in the last few years. But the highest concentration of UCI points is in Europe. Unfortunately it’s also the most challenging place for NZ riders due to the expense of getting there, the language barrier, the exchange rate… Kiwi’s who want to race at the highest level have a few extra barriers to leap (the Aussies too, but they also have bigger race fields and more UCI races at home to get them started).

A quick recap – UCI points critical to have at least one position on the start line, UCI points not all that easy to earn! Now we’ll look at some more detail about that qualification process.

From 1 June 2014 to 31 May 2015, and from 1 June 2015 to 31 May 2016, UCI points could contribute towards Olympic qualification (in some cases, selection too, but we’re just focusing on qualification here). The importance of the distinction between the two 12 month periods and not a single 24 month period is easy to see in the example of the New Zealand women. The three riders who accumulate the most points in each period contribute to the tally for that period. Karen Hanlen earned a bunch of points in the first period but not the second. While Kim Hurst didn’t start earning points until the second period. Fortunately for us, those two periods being split means Karen’s points are included in the tally for the first period and Kim’s for the second. So rather than just the highest one, we get the points of both in the final tally. Similarly, Samara Sheppard stepped out of MTB for a spell and only earned in the second period. We get her points, and those of Amber Johnston from the first period.

So if you’re really serious about earning those Olympic spots, you need to be thinking a long way in advance of the Games themselves.  Also, especially if you’re from a nation with few top level riders, you might just be relying on those who are your biggest competition at home to make it possible for you to live your Olympic dream!

One of the strangest things about the Olympic mountain bike races is that they are some of the smallest fields of the Olympic year. In world cups riders battle away with 80+ riders in the women’s fields, and sometimes upwards of 180 riders in the men’s, but at the Olympics there will be 30 women and 50 men. For perspective, there were 24 Swiss (8 in the top 20, remember) and 18 Germans entered in the elite men’s race in Albstadt last Sunday, and 11 Swiss women and 7 each from France, Germany and the Czech Republic. The reasons behind these limits might best be covered in another post another day, but these capped numbers are a big driver of the need for the qualification process.

To achieve these capped numbers, the number of start positions are awarded based on the total number of points gained in the process described above, as follows:

In the men’s race – 3 spots each for the top 5 nations, 2 spots each for nations ranked 6 to 13, and a single spot for the remainder, down to the 23rd ranked nation. There are currently 89 ranked nations for men.

In the women’s race – 2 spots each for the top 8 nations, and 1 each for those ranked 9 to 17. There are currently 75 ranked nations for women.

There are a couple of other ways spots can be earned too. The host nation gets one. The nation of the continental champion gets one for women and the top two nations get one each in the men’s. In the case of their being any unfilled spots, these become Tripartite Commission Invitation Places and are allocated by the Commission in accordance with a separate set of rules. This is what happens when a role isn’t filled.

Oh, there’s another twist with the continental spots (one that works to our advantage this year). If a nation qualifies a spot through the points system, but they’ve already qualified a spot in the continental champs (for Rio the 2015 continental champs counted), that spot is then reallocated to the next best nation in the rankings that has not qualified a spot. Hint, for the women, Aussie won Oce’s in 2015 and are ranked 15th at the end of the qualification period.

The UCI has today updated the final tally of points for qualification. Yes! The results are in! In the men’s New Zealand was ranked 18th – enough for one spot. Had they not been in the top 23 they had the back up of Anton’s second place at Oce’s in 2015. But you only get one of those spots – no double dipping. The only way for us to send two men is to earn more points. One factor that added to the challenge of earning those points is that even with both Sam and Anton accumulating points, some of which have come from high earning results, and with contributions from Ben Oliver (15/16) and Dirk Peters (14/15), with the exception of Dirk’s points and Nationals and Oces where the rules were a little different, all of the points came from U23 racing. The points in U23 races are significantly lower than elite points. On a more positive note, both of our top guys are old enough to be selected now!

Our women are ranked 27th. A long way from qualification through points. We also didn’t win Oce’s in 2015 and only the winning nation gets a spot through that. Right now, Australia are our very best friends because thanks to their accumulation of points they are ranked 15th, earning them a spot and defaulting their continental spot to us! All those UCI races in Australia last summer were as beneficial for us as for them in terms of qualification. It was only as recent as March that their spot through points looked safe (which meant our spot through inheriting the continental allocation looked safe).

Now we know the score: we have one spot in the men’s race, and one spot in the women’s race. And this is why Sam and Anton can’t both go to the Olympics in 2016.

The competition is extremely hot between our guys to claim that one spot and the selectors have much to consider. Meanwhile on the women’s side, Kate Fluker has clearly signalled her intentions to claim the women’s spot. And she’s the only NZ woman over in Europe right now. With the final major race of the selection period being the World Cup in La Bresse this coming weekend (the nomination period ends before World Champs), she is really the only rider the selectors will be considering. And while they don’t have to chose between multiple riders, they do have to determine whether or not their criteria have been met.

Nomination period???? But you said it was just qualification and selection!!! I’d better cover that one off… the selection process: First, riders must be recommended by the discipline panel (in this case MTBNZ) to the CNZ Olympic Selection Panel. From there they must be nominated by that panel to the NZOC, who make the final selections.

The bar is set very high. The criteria for recommendation is that a rider should be considered capable of a medal in Rio. The only other avenue is to be considered capable of a medal in Tokyo, 2020 (essentially using Rio as part of an Olympic development pathway). The number of riders that can be nominated is the maximum number that can attend. So in this case, one of each gender.

These rather convoluted criteria and processes are why some of the worlds best riders won’t be on the start line in Rio, and why even some of the worlds very best riders don’t yet have certainty about whether or not they will be lining up in Rio. The top four women in the US are making such a battle over their two spots that even a top 10 result in Cairns didn’t clip a ticket for Lea Davison. Not yet anyway. And you know the Swiss and French selectors are going to have their work cut out deciding who to send in their 2nd and 3rd spots!

I was going to end this post here, but I can already hear the cries of ‘but in 2012 there was a spot and that thing happened!!!’. And yes, New Zealand had qualified a spot for the men that was used in a highly controversial way. Back then, Anton didn’t meet the minimum age requirement and the IOC didn’t grant an exemption to that. And our other guys didn’t meet the requirements of the selectors. If it had finished like that I think everyone would have accepted it as being the way the whole crazy and convoluted process works. As you can see, it’s not easy to qualify those spots in the first place. They are so hard to come by, it is inevitable that hearts are going to be broken when the work doesn’t pay off and the years and years of work don’t result in achieving the one thing you’ve lived and breathed for so long.

The processes described in this post aren’t designed to allow an unfilled spot to be used by another discipline. That is absolutely not the intent. But the rules did allow it, and the decision was made to take advantage of that.

I’ve had a keen interest in the details of all of this since first seeing the movie ‘Off Road to Athens’ – a documentary on the US men and women as they raced and fought to be selected for the XC race in Athens in 2004. The USAC learned some tough lessons that year. And it really drives home how stressful it can be to make it to the Olympics! You think they just have to race, but in reality there is every type of stress. Will there be a spot? Will they be the one to fill it? Will the process be fair and transparent?

It is a tough, tough road. Every rider who has the privilege to stand on that start line has got there the hard way (if they haven’t they will be found out, sooner or later).

I hope this has helped cast some light for a few of you. And for now, all the very best to our riders in their final chance to impress the selectors in La Bresse, France, this coming weekend!

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