A few days ago Lovisa Lindh was informed by the Swedish Olympic Committee (SOC) that she will not be selected to compete for Sweden in the Tokyo Olympics about to start in a few weeks. She had been nominated for selection by the Swedish Athletics Federation and on her Instagram account she posted a message reading that she had; never felt a disappointment this huge, that Tokyo had been her main motivation the last five years and that she had kept believing in her dream throughout any injury and setback she had encountered. She wrote that she felt betrayed by SOC and that this hurts more than all her stress fractures put together.
Lindh’s situation has gotten a fair bit of attention in the Nordics with various pundits taking different positions whether the decision made by SOC was right or wrong.
Peter Reinebo, the CEO of SOC, justified the decision not to select Lovisa Lindh by saying that her results unfortunately are just not good enough to be selected.
This sounds strange as Lindh at the moment is ranked as the 22nd best female 800 runner by World Athletics. Considering that 48 is the desired number of starters in the event, it seems odd that an athlete ranked in 22nd,who the last few weeks has beaten several other athletes, like Hedda Hynne, Katharina Trost and Nadia Power, who all have been selected to represent their countries in Tokyo, is considered to not have achieved good enough results.
This is caused by the fact that SOC employs a specific top 8 standard. Essentially this standard means that any selected athlete must have a realistic chance of achieving a top 8. In other words Lindh would need to have a realistic chance of making it to the 800 meter final in order to have qualified for selection. Young athletes can be exempted from the top 8 standard, but as Lindh is no longer a particularly young athlete, at 29, and she cannot be exempted from the criterion.
Faced with criticism in the press, Reinebo, explained that this is a criterion which has been agreed with the various sport federations. This led the Swedish Athletics Federation to publish an open letter to SOC on their website, making it clear that they disagree with the criterion and that qualifying should be based on the international standards.
Several athletes and coaches have been highly critical of the decision to leave Lindh as well as the male pole vaulter, Melker Svärd Jacobsson, off the team.
The successful trainer, Yannick Tregaro, goes as far as to say that Peter Reinebo is allowed to ruin people’s lives. He indicates that he is sick and tired of the situation. That the years fly by, but every Olympic selection cycle the same issue arises and that it is stupid to have a criterion which means that someone will have to make subjective decisions.
Subjective decisions are often hard to make. It is far from easy to think things through and arrive at a wise and unbiased decision. It will very often lead to decisions that are seen as unfair by some athletes. The criticism from Tregaro seems to catch this fact very well.
However, the choice to leave Lindh of the team, has not only been met with criticism. Vebjørn Rodal, the gold medalist from the men’s 800 at the Atlanta Olympics, expressed understanding for the decision.
At Sportindepth we are in the habit of analyzing events and trying to predict results. We have a biathlon model that even now, many months before the start of the season, is predicting how the 2021-22 Biathlon World Cup will finish. We know that predicting results is far from easy. To subjectively pin point the chances of athletes finishing top 8, with no model to help calculate the likelihood, sounds very hard. Even so we will make an effort to weigh up Lindh’s chances.
We will start by assessing Lindh’s situation. She has been struggling with injuries for years. Her indoor season was unimpressive and she had a somewhat sluggish start to the outdoor season. However, things took a big step in the right direction on June 1st as she broke 2 minutes, running 1:59.87 to finish 3rd in a meeting in France. Her last two meetings, the Diamond League events in Oslo and Stockholm, she also ran faster than 2 minutes finishing 5th and 6th. Her results this season have not been great by her standards, but every indication is that she is moving in the right direction and is getting faster. The mostly lackluster first five months of 2021 can easily have been caused by injuries and setbacks in training.
At her best, Lindh has shown that she possesses the potential to run really well. She won bronze in the European Championships in Amsterdam in 2016, behind Nataliya Krol (nee Pryshchepa) and Renelle Lamote. In 2020 Krol was suspended for doping, having been caught using the diuretic, hydrochlorothiazide.
Lindh finished 4th in the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade in 2017. Her personal best in the 800 is 1:58.77 which she ran in a stacked field during the Lausanne Diamond League event in 2017.
There is not much doubt that Lindh’s best results were achieved some years ago. However, both her last two runs have only been about a second behind her personal best and her form definitely seems to be trending in the right direction.
Based on the limited information we have, there is no way we can rule out that Lindh could have arrived in Tokyo at the top of her game, as good as she was when winning a European bronze five years ago. Furthermore, the fact that she now has a good amount of championship experience would for sure have been an advantage.
Lindh has run well in several championships. In 2013 she set a new personal best in the European Under-23 Championships. The next year she made another personal best during the European Championships in Zurich. She was close to her best when winning bronze in the 2016 European Championship in Amsterdam, but even so managed to deliver again with a new personal best in the Rio semi, where she was only 2-3 meters behind the women advancing to the final. This was a very good result considering that controversial athletes like Semenya, Niyonsaba and Wambui took up three of the eight lanes in the Rio final. Lindh ran an indoor personal best while finishing 4th, less than a meter behind the bronze medalist, in the Belgrade European Indoor Championship. The last few years have been difficult, but there is no doubt that Lovisa Lindh has shown a tendency to be at her best when it matters the most.
How often do athletes ranked around where she is in the World Athletics world rankings make it to the final? As the world rankings is a somewhat new concept, they did not exist before January 2019, it is impossible to tell. The sample size is just way too small. Even so, let us take a look at the women’s 800 at Doha2019.
Below we have listed the finalists in the order they finished. We have also included their world ranking at the start of the event:
Halimah Nakaayi 10th
Raevyn Rogers 4th
Ajee Wilson 1st
Winnie Nanyondo 13th
Eunice Jepkoech Sum 28th
Natoya Goule 2nd
Rababe Arafi 37th
Ce’Aira Brown 24th
Based on the above we can see that three of the eight finalists were ranked worse than Lindh is now. Albeit two of these three are somewhat special cases. Sum who was ranked 28th is a former World Champion and Arafi ranked 37th, was actually ranked as high as 7th in the 1500. Even so, there is nothing from the 2019 final that indicates that it would have been impossible for Lindh to make the final in Tokyo.
Let us now take a look at the athletes who came somewhat close to making it to the final. Below we have listed the four athletes with the best non-qualifying times in the semis and their world ranking coming into the event:
Olha Lyakhova 8th
Lindsey Butterworth 33rd
Noélie Yarigo 34th
Hedda Hynne 18th
Of the women with the 12 best times from the semis, five of them were ranked worse, coming into the 2019 World Championship, than Lindh is now.
Based on the above and the fact that Lindh’s form surely seems to be trending in the right direction, that she is running not very much slower than the best times of her career, and her proven ability to deliver on the big stage, I fail to understand how anyone objectively or subjectively can conclude that Lovisa Lindh is not in contention for a top 8 finish.
To be clear I am not at all saying that she would have been likely to make the final. There are many athletes looking very strong this year in the women’s 800, even as the DSD-athletes who dominated the event for several years are barred from competing. If I am pressed to make a subjective evaluation of her chances, I would maybe give her 12-20 percent of making a top 8 finish. In other words I find it far less likely that she would have been top 8 than that she would have finished in the top 8.
I don’t know precisely how to understand SOC’s top 8 standard. Honestly I am far from sure what is meant by a realistic chance. I have never even read the exact wording of the criterion, but taking a look at the athletes who have been selected, I would be surprised if something like a 12-20% chance should not good enough. I do not mean to in any way discredit any of the athletes I name below. I sincerely think that each and every one of them have earned their selection and most definitely deserve to go to Tokyo, but I am far from sure that I would agree that they have better chances than Lovisa Lindh of finishing in the top 8:
Emil Blomberg, has only competed at one global championship, London 2017 where he did not finish. His best at a European Championship is a 13th place finish. He has improved a fair bit this year and set a personal best of 8:20.55 in the 3000 steeplechase, he has also run 8:21.28 in 2021. He is 29 years old and is ranked 43rd by World Athletics. My personal and subjective opinion is that Lindh would have better chances of a top 8 finish than him.
Kalle Berglund made the final in Doha2019 and came very close to a top 8 as he finished 9th. He is only 25 years old and potentially can have a great future. However, he has shown absolutely no sort of form in 2021. He was beaten by more than 7 seconds in the Doha Diamond League 1500 and he did not finish the races in the Gateshead and Stockholm Diamond Leagues. I do not know enough about the driver behind his poor results in 2021, to have a good idea about his chances in Tokyo, but based on how he has performed this year they do not seem to be great.
Sarah Lahti is a 26 year old who is selected to run the 10 000. She won a silver in the 10 000 and a bronze in the 5000 at the European Under-23 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in 2017. She set a personal best of 31:11.12 in the 10 000 in May this year. Personally and subjectively I would rate her chances of top 8 worse than Lovisa Lindh’s chances.
My intention is definitely not to disrespect any of the athletes above. Again I want to reiterate that I most definitely think that they have earned their places. They have qualified according to the international standards. I think all of them deserve their places and should be on the plane to Japan. However, I find it somewhat likely that none of the Swedish track runners in Tokyo will finish in the top 8. As this is the case I cannot understand the justification for leaving Lovisa Lindh off the team.
Furthermore it seems to me like Yannick Tregaro is absolutely right. The decision making has been subjective. The criterion is made in such a way that it has to be a subjective decision. Secondly I disagree with subjective decisions that have been made. I do not think that Lindh would have had worse chances than many of the selected athletes.
Finally I wonder what the Olympics would look like if all the various national Olympic Committee’s would act as SOC? If they would choose not to send former medalists from Continental Championships. Especially medalists who are at an age where the athletes should be close to the peak of their careers, athletes who seem to be coming into better form and are running close to their best times ever? Really I think it would make for some strange and unattractive games.
I am thrilled not to be in Peter Reinebo’s position. I would hate to make such subjective decisions that have a huge impact on the careers of athletes. I feel for Lovisa Lindh, I truly think a travesty of justice has been made in this matter.