September 28, 2021

Evaluating SOK’s Lovisa Lindh decision with the benefit of hindsight

It has been a month and some days since Peter Reinebo of the Swedish Olympic Committee (SOK) made it clear that Lovisa Lindh would not be heading to the Olympics Games in Tokyo.

Lindh, the bronze medalist at the 2016 European Championships in Amsterdam, did not take at all well to the decision. She posted a message on her Instagram account highlighting that she had never been this disappointed and that competing in Tokyo had been her main motivation for the last five years as she had been struggling with multiple injuries. She made clear that she felt betrayed by SOK and that this betrayal hurt her more than all of her stress fractures put together.

The lead up to Reinebo announcing that Lindh would not be selected to compete was bizarre. On 4 July, during the Diamond League meeting in Stockholm, Lindh ran a season best of 1.59.76, finishing 6th. The qualifying standard employed by World Athletics for the women’s 800 was 1.59.50. Lindh had come very close to meeting it, running faster than 2 minutes three times during the season, but had fallen just short.

However, as the target number of competitors in the event was 48 and as Lindh was ranked 22nd in the world ranking, World Athletics reached out to the Swedish Athletics Federation and invited Lindh to Tokyo. In the list, unifying time qualifiers and the world ranking, Lindh was ranked in 37th. She was clearly qualified to compete in the Olympics. The Swedish Athletics Federation accepted the invitation and this led to Lindh being issued her Olympic accreditation and seemed destined to be on the plane bound for Tokyo.

However a few days later, Peter Reinebo announced that Lindh would not be going, as she in his opinion did not meet the “top 8” criterion. The Swedish top 8 criterion means that athletes are only supposed to be selected if they have shown that they are capable of competing for a top 8 result. Exceptions are made for young athletes who would benefit from gaining Olympic experience.

Lindh turned 30 last month and even if that means she is still young, she is no longer particularly young as an athlete. Even so it is not unlikely that she could be competing in 3 years when the games in Paris is due to start.

When SOK’s decision was announced the iconic trainer Yannick Tregaro did not mince his words answering Lindh on Instagram. Parts of what he wrote translates along the lines of;

“I cannot fathom what SOK/Peter Reinebo is doing”.

“Where exactly is the border for the top 8 criterion, when precisely can you be considered young enough to be exempted from the criterion”?

“It is sick that the responsibility for making such decisions rests with one person”.

“The years are passing, yet SOK is allowed to keep on ruining people’s lives”.

Several well-known athletes like Michael Torneus and Bianca Salming expressed support for Lovisa Lindh. The commentator Tommy Åström tweeted in Swedish, something which roughly translates to English as;

“The struggle between the Swedish Athletics Federation and the Swedish Olympic Committee has lasted for decades. SOK’s unique top 8 criterion should most definitely be questioned. How would the start lists be, if all countries would do the same as SOK? There would be no need for heats or semis, we could move directly on to the finals? Furthermore in the matter of Lovisa Lindh, SOK has made a huge miscalculation about the nature of the event. Considering her current form, Lindh does have chances of finishing top 8 in a tactical event like the 800 meter. This decision is damaging for the credibility of the ones responsible for making it.”

In an article I wrote July 8, we highlighted that at Sportindepth we are continuously making predictions about sport events. We have a state of the art biathlon model which it has taken several thousands of working hours to build. We know very well that prediction making is anything but easy. Even so I made an attempt at weighing up Lindh’s chances and made it very clear that I strongly disagreed with the decision that had been made by Reinebo. Especially so, when comparing her chances with the chances of the other Swedish track runners who SOK seem to think did fulfil the top 8 criterion.

Everything is always easier with the benefit of hindsight. Now that the games in Tokyo are done and dusted we have the overview of what it took to qualify for the women’s 800 final and also of how the other Swedish track runners did.

We will start by looking at the 800 from different angles. By examining the start lists we can see that Lindh seems to be more deserving of a spot than many of the starters. This is not surprising as I guess there are good reasons why she was ranked as the 22nd best female 800 runner by World Athletics. Still it is noteworthy that Lindh in just her last three starts, before she was informed by SOK that she would not be going to Tokyo, did beat many of the women who started the heats in Olympics. Examples of such athletes are; Katharina Trost, Louise Shanahan, Delia Sclabas, Gabriela Gajanova and Hedda Hynne.

Hedda Hynne who advanced to the semi-finals, had been beaten by Lindh in both of her last two races.

Checking further back, than the last three starts, it is not hard to identify other athletes who did take part in the Tokyo 800, which Lindh had beaten earlier in the 2021 season.

18 athletes qualified for the semis by finishing among the top 3 in their heats. In addition to these, there were 6 time qualifiers. If you were not among the top 3 you needed to run 2.01.16 or faster to qualify for the semi-finals. Based on Lindh’s two most recent performances, the Diamond Leagues in Oslo and Stockholm, where she ran 1.59.81 (Oslo) and 1.59.76 (Stockholm) as well as the fact that athletes she had recently beaten like Hynne and Trost qualified, it seems substantially more likely than not that Lindh would have made it through.

Even so, there is no way to know for sure what would have happened. Catriona Bisset, who beat Lindh by more than half a second in both Oslo and Stockholm, was the second fastest athlete not to advance. Gajanova who Lindh had beaten was the fastest who did not advance.

The draw for the semi-finals created, in our opinion, somewhat uneven start lists. If I were a participant similar to Lovisa Lindh, who were expected to qualify for the semi, but likely to struggle to qualify for the final, I would much have preferred to be drawn in semi-final 2, rather than 1 or 3. This is because even if the top athletes in semi 2 are exceptionally good, I think Lindh would have just as good a chance to advance, as most of the athletes behind the few main favourites.

The other reason why I would have preferred semi 2, is because of the pace angle. The top two qualifiers in each semi in addition to the 2 fastest times from the non-top 2 finishers, would qualify for the final. It seemed likely that the main favourite to win gold, Athing Mu (drawn in semi 2), would run fast from the front. This is also what happened. Semi-final 2 was 1.49 seconds faster than semi 3 and 3.65 seconds faster than semi 1 at the halfway point. This provided an opportunity for athletes, who before the draw were made, were not expected to qualify for the final. An athlete who could just stay somewhat close to Mu the whole way, would have a good chance to qualify as one of the two “fast losers”.

Alexandra Bell, a 28-year-old Brit, who at the start of the season had a worse 800 personal best, than Lindh’s last two results, did just that. She finished 3rd, running 1.58.83. Lore Hoffmann who Lindh had beaten once during the season, but lost to three times, finished 4th. However, Hoffmann’s 1.59.38, was 0.10 too slow. The eventual bronze medalist Raevyn Rogers, who ran in semi 3, grabbed the second “lucky loser” spot, running 1.59.28. Based on how Lindh’s season was progressing and her last results, we would not have been at all surprised If she had finished 3rd or 4th with a time faster than 1.59.28, if she had been drawn to run in semi 2.

Bell ran a new personal best of 1.58.52 in Belfast towards the end of May and Lore Hoffmann had a season best of 1.59.06 coming into the Olympics. I would rate both of their chances higher than Lovisa Lindh’s, if Lindh had been allowed by SOK to compete in Tokyo. However, I would not have given any of them a much better chance. The reality is that Lindh had a fair chance to improve enough during the almost four weeks between the Stockholm Diamond League and the Olympic 800 semi-finals, to qualify for the final. This is especially true if she had hit the 33 percent chance of getting to run in semi 2.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that several of the 8 finalists were ranked lower than Lindh. Examples of this are the already mentioned Alexandra Bell who were 26th and Chunuy Wang who were 33rd in the world rankings.

The fact that Lindh in the past often has been able to produce her best, precisely at the right time, during championships. Makes it even more likely that she could have pulled this off.

We have no idea of what kind of top 8 chance is required to meet the criterion, or if it is even precisely defined. However, based on some of the athletes SOK seems to have deemed having met the criterion, it does really not seem like much of a chance is needed.

It is also possible that athletes are judged to automatically have met the criterion if they have produced the needed time-standard? However, we cannot really understand the logic of applying the rules in such a way. Why would someone who ran a specified time many months ago, necessarily have a reasonable chance of finishing top 8? Surely the recent form is a better indicator?

In our previous article we indicated that Lindh, in our opinion, would have had a 12-20 percent chance of finishing top 8. We also wrote that we found it likely that none of the selected Swedish track runners, would finish in the top 8. We indicated that most of them did not have a better chance of a top 8 finish than Lindh. Now we can assess the results.

For maximum clarity, we have a lot of respect for all the athletes we will name below and we were unequivocally in favour of them being selected to run in Tokyo. They had all met World Athletics qualifying criterion and that should in our opinion be more than enough. The only reason for our comments below is to try to shed light on how reasonable SOK’s decision to exclude Lindh really was.

Kalle Berglund who did great, finishing 9th, in Doha 2019 World Championship, but who has had an abysmal season, struggling with over-training and an Achilles tendon issue, finished 12th and second last of the finishers in his heat. During the race he never looked likely to advance to the semi-final. At his best, Kalle could for sure do very well. Still I assume his medical issues were known to SOK and it is a fact that he would have needed to lower his personal best by more than a second to finish top 8 in the final. All things considered we think Lovisa Lindh would have had a better chance of a top 8.

Andreas Kramer finished 5th in his 800 heat. He would have needed to finish two places higher or to run about half a second faster to qualify for the semi. Coming into the Olympics we would assess his chances as somewhat similar, maybe slightly worse than Lovisa Lindh’s.

Sweden’s three steeplechasers; Emil Blomberg, Vidar Johansson and Simon Sundström never looked likely to qualify for the 15 men strong final. Sundström and Johansson surely should obtain the “young athlete” exemption, but as we are not really sure about how this exemption is supposed to work we are less sure about 29-year-old Emil Blomberg. In our previous article we made it clear that we thought he had worse chances than Lovisa Lindh to make a top 8 finish. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to stand by this assessment.

The 10 000 meter runners; Meraf Bahta and Sarah Lahti were not close to finishing in the top 8. Lahti did not finish the race while Bahta finished 18th.

If Bahta had reproduced her personal best during the hot and humid conditions of the Tokyo championship race, she would have finished 10th. For comparison, the two main pre-race favourites underperformed their PBs by some 50 seconds (Hassan) and about a minute (Gidey). The 32-year-old Bahta, winner of the 2014 Zurich European Championships 5000 meter, bronze medalist of the 10 000 meter of the 2018 Berlin European Championships and 6th place finisher of the 1500 in Rio 2016 Olympics, is an athlete of such a caliber that she surely had chances of a top 8 finish. Still like every one of us, she is not getting any younger. Before the Olympics I would lean towards that Batha had a better top 8 chance than Lindh. Considering the conditions in Tokyo, equaling your 10 000 personal best, was a daunting task. However, all the four finishers in 4th through 7th did run personal bests, so it was clearly possible. Knowing how Bahta and her competitors performed, I am far from convinced that she had better top 8 chances than Lindh.

Lahti ran awesome, finishing only 3 seconds and 3 places behind Bahta when both of them set their personal bests of 31.11.12 and 31.08.05, in Sweden in May. No matter I would give her a substantially worse chance of finishing top 8 than Lovisa Lindh would have had. Sarah Lahti is 26, so likely she should be granted the youth exemption?

For us it is incomprehensible how excluding Lindh and including all the athletes above can reasonably be justified. We find it entirely possible that SOK made sure to leave the Swedish track athlete with the best chances of a top 8 off the team.

Furthermore we find it curious that the only justification provided by SOK/Reinebo of why Lindh was left of the team is something along the lines of;

“Her results does not fulfill the top 8 criterion. As this is the case we are unable to select her.”

If a more detailed explanation has been provided, we have at least not seen it.

How can it be okay that SOK are not at all obliged to explain why an athlete who previously has shown an aptitude for hitting peak form at the championships, is a former medalist from continental championships, has shown steady improvement throughout the season and in her two last races has performed well at the highest level, does not fulfill the top 8 criterion? For us it is a mystery how they arrived at their conclusion. How can it be that we as a bare minimum are not even entitled to a proper in-depth explanation of how they have reasoned?

I can easily understand if you at this point are curious as to why we believe our judgment to be superior to the experts at SOK. After all, SOK has a lot of experience in making such calls regarding Swedish athletes. Why does a foreign freelance journalist feel he is entitled to question their decisions?

Firstly I am not saying that our judgment is superior. As all I have read is an exceptionally superficial statement as to why Lindh could not be selected, it is entirely plausible that there are reasons we have overlooked. We cannot rule out that there is something relevant we are not aware of. Even if I dislike blowing my own horn, I will explain why I feel in a decent position to weigh up the chances of the various athletes. It is simply because I have done so for a living. I have in the distant past done the unholy work of compiling odds, athletics odds too, for bookmakers. When compiling the odds you are essentially weighing up the chances of the various outcomes. I have also made a healthy net profit betting on athletics the last decade and I have a large database of athletics results hooked up to a large video library of past races.

Do I think that this should mean that my judgment is better than everyone else? Absolutely not! I have been wrong far too many times in the past to think that I am better and that my judgment is something special. I do however think that it means that my judgment is not necessarily worse than the experts at SOK, that there is a reasonable chance that I am right and that SOK made a terrible mistake.

Another controversial decision made by SOK was the exclusion of the pole vaulter Melker Svärd Jacobsson. He qualified by the world ranking and was invited by World Athletics, but was informed by SOK that unless he jumped 5.80, which was the qualifying standard, he would not be selected. This seems strange as his season best of 5.65 would have been good enough to finish top 8 in the four previous Olympic pole vault finals before Tokyo. Renaud Lavillinie finished 8th in Tokyo clearing 5.70 in the final.

I am far less knowledgeable about pole vault than running events. Because of this I feel in a much worse position to strongly criticize SOK for this decision. Even so, I cannot really see how SOK can justify that jumping 5.80 is needed to be in contention for a top 8, considering the results of the past championships. Furthermore Melker Svärd Jacobsson is only 27. He will be 30 when the Paris Olympics comes around. Why can he not be granted an exemption? Have SOK even communicated clearly where they draw the line for such exemptions?

Sweden was the only nation who declined to send an invited pole vaulter to Tokyo. Because of the late decisions and lack of coordination, the Spanish athlete Adrian Valles was not offered a slot to compete in the pole vault. The German athlete, Tanja Spill, would have been invited to run the 800 in Tokyo, if the Swedes had informed World Athletics in a timely manner. The sad reality is that the lack of coordination between SOK and the Swedish Athletics Federation and the slow decision making deprived other athletes in addition to Lindh and Svaerd Jacobsen of the chance to be in Tokyo.

Coming from a Norwegian this could sound strange, but I truly love and adore Swedish sport. You have so many wonderful athletes! Armand Duplantis the record breaking wonderkid, Daniel Ståhl the perfect mix of Swedish playfulness and Finnish sisu, the poise and composure of Hanna Öberg, the never-say-die attitude of her little sister Elvira Öberg, the much needed and greatly appreciated outspokenness of Sebastian Samuelsson, the adventurous and courageous Stina Nilsson, the youthful exuberance of Ebba Andersson and Frida Karlsson, who together, starting soon, are likely to dominate women’s non-sprint cross country skiing for a decade.

The above list is far from exhaustive, I could go on and on and on, however this article is already longer than I like, so I will not.

Still, it is important that you realize that it is not like the rest of the world is laughing at Sweden, it is more like we are crying. Tommy Åström is absolutely correct. Imagine what the Olympics would look like if all the nations would do as Sweden and only send athletes they believe capable of top 8 finishes? The starting fields would be minuscule. Is this what SOK or really anyone wants the Olympics to become? It almost feels like SOK wants to ruin the kind of Olympics most of us love and cherish.

Recently Peter Reinebo told SVT that SOK had already started to look at ways to improve the communication. However, improving the communication can never rectify the damage-potential of the top 8 criterion. Furthermore better communication is far from sure to make the decision-making of SOK, when determining which athletes will be allowed to compete, any better.

Reinebo has also indicated a willingness to reassess the criteria. This is the path that must be taken and the decision to scrap the top 8 criterion should be a given.

Finally I want to say to Lovisa Lindh that, I know that my words carries next to no weight and are complete impotent, they simply can do nothing to undo the great injustice we think has been committed against you. Still there are many people, not only inside Sweden, but also abroad, who can clearly see that what happened to you was an abomination.

You are Sweden’s best ever female 800 runner, you are a continental medalist, you have fought your way back from multiple injuries to be competitive on the Diamond League circuit and run times faster than 2 minutes. Please do not give up! 2022 comes with both a European and a World Championship, if you avoid further injury setbacks, you have it in you to show the entire world that you were capable of reaching the Tokyo final. You have nothing to be ashamed of, but every reason to be proud of your achievements!

The same can unfortunately not be said about SOK. We think that not selecting Lovisa Lindh was a dereliction of duty and a travesty of justice, it must have consequences. The reality is that Yannick Tregaro is right, it is impossible to assess the top 8 criterion objectively. It will always involve a subjective assessment. As an absolute minimum the top 8 criterion must be scrapped before Paris 2024. This is the time for action, in two and a half years most people will likely have forgotten about the Lindh injustice.

Mathis Brorstad

Mathis Brorstad

Mathis Brorstad is a Norwegian freelance writer. He is mainly covering Athletics, Biathlon and other Winter Sports. In the past he has done work on odds and probabilities.

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