May 25, 2024

Will anyone hold the SOC accountable?

The heartbroken young woman on the bench, in the photo above, is a Swedish hero. She is one of a far from endless number of Swedish athletes who is near the peak of a truly global sport. She has fought her way back from a long string of injuries. She is, however, inconsolable because her dreams were dashed by the very people tasked with supporting her and helping her compete to the best of her abilities.

The SOC (Swedish Olympic Committee) are supposed to be caretakers of the spirit of the founder of the modern Olympics – Pierre de Coubertin – who coined the famous phrase:

“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

We find it hard to reconcile the SOC’s actions with the Olympic ideals.

Did the SOC miss the memo about what is supposed to be important in the movement it is a part of? According to De Coubertin the Olympics is about taking part in the struggle and fighting well – not winning medals or finishing among the top eight.

However, let us get back to where this article started: to the shattered athlete on the bench. What made her grief-stricken? Long story short, she was invited to compete at the event she had given her everything to qualify for. The event which had kept her going, as she fought her way back from multiple injuries over several years. She had overcome all the setbacks and was slowly but surely approaching her very best, improving and running faster than she had done for years. Now only the fine-tuning remained. Soon she would board the plane and travel with her team-mates to the long-awaited Tokyo Olympics.

However, her dreams were obliterated by the very people who were supposed to help her make them come true. They told her she was not good enough, that there was no way she could make the final, and that even as the Swedish Athletics Federation had accepted World Athletics’ invitation on her behalf she would not be allowed to take part. The fact she had already been issued her accreditation as an Olympic athlete only made the situation worse.

Yes, this is only about sports. It is not a life-and-death issue. There are many people who have it a lot worse than Lovisa Lindh. Even so, imagine how you would feel if your main goal, for which you had been working all-out towards over many years, was crushed and you felt you had had not received a proper explanation of why. If you knew that the decision-makers had been provided documentation supporting your claim that you did fulfil the qualifying criteria. If a vast range of experts and athletes had spoken out on your behalf, yet the decision-makers would not budge.

I don’t know about you, but I would have struggled to take it, even if this is “only about sports”.

If I have understood the SOC’s website correctly one of their most important tasks is to;

help create good role models”

It is hard to reconcile this core task with their selection criteria and decision-making.

How are they creating role models by refusing to select athletes who are invited to compete on the biggest stage? Refusing to select qualified athletes, who would have been selected by more or less every other National Olympic Committee (NOC) in the entire world – is that not the very opposite of creating role models? Does it not deprive the Swedish public and, worse yet, the Swedish youth of role models?

Maybe those of the SOC’s member federations that support the top eight criterion would do well to ask themselves what the Olympics is supposed to be about, what the Olympic spirit is, and double-check if they are really sure that supporting the top eight criterion is the right thing to do.

Many experts made it abundantly clear that they strongly disagreed with the SOC’s selection decisions. Yannick Tregaro went as far as to say that the SOC is allowed to keep on ruining people’s lives.

There were many more Swedes speaking up, but in this article we will instead focus on some of the foreign criticism of the SOC.

The respected Norwegian commentator, Jann Post, made clear to NRK that he thinks it is a hopelessly poor decision and that if the rest of the world would act as the SOC, the Olympics would lose all its charm. He also expressed that the SOC seems to completely lack the necessary understanding of the sport of athletics, saying that Lindh would have been a given semi-finalist, who on a very good day possibly could have advanced to the final.

The well-known Norwegian coach, Knut Jæger Hansen, who trained Ingvild Måkestad Bovim in the past and is currently training Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal, commented something along the lines of:

In this matter the SOC is wide of the mark. It seems they are unable to grasp that a runner ranked as the 22nd in the world is capable of reaching the final. As she is a female athlete, Lindh is just at the start of what is likely to be the best period of her career. Unfortunately this is another example of old men who does not know any better, but are in positions of power, and either makes decisions or statements, as if they were experts.

Another Norwegian athletics coach, Gisle Ellingsen, said something which roughly translates to:

The SOC is not on the side of the athletes or the sport. This is exceptionally poor sports-management, both for the athletes but also for Sweden.

Countless athletes expressed support for Lindh and the other Swedish athletes suffering a similar fate at the hands of the SOC.

The famous author and performance coach, Steve Magness, tweeted:

“Here’s an example of a Swedish 800m runner who has run 1:59 this year and 1:58.7 in years prior and is ranked 22nd in the world. She qualifies for the Olympics. Yet, her country doesn’t take her because they don’t *think* she can be top eight.”

He went on to ask a rhetorical question:

Could you imagine an NBA team declining a spot in the playoffs because they were the last seed & unlikely to win? Of course not.”

This sums it up rather well. We do not know of other National Olympic Committees using similar criteria to the SOC. This begs the question: is there something the SOC have understood that the rest of the world is missing? Or is it rather the other way around?

Magness’ Twitter post triggered a discussion on one of the larger athletics forums worldwide, LetsRun, the SOC’s decision was widely ridiculed and the decision-makers called, among other things, ‘control freaks’.

There is a unifying factor in all of the above. Many people who know the sport from different angles do not seem to see things the same way as the SOC.

The decorated race walker, Perseus Karlström, informed us that there are nomination-criteria, in the form of result standards, which later lead to selection and that Lovisa Lindh did not produce it, and that the SOC selected everyone who hit the SOC’s nomination standard and none who did not. I have been informed that the SOC changed their nomination standards in middle of the process and that Karin Torneklint did not sign the document highlighting the new marathon standards.

Based on this, it seems to me that the SOC did not select all athletes who hit their initial standard.

Nonetheless, Perseus pointed to something interesting and we will now delve into the relevant criteria and guidelines, to try to assess if the SOC did the right thing selecting all athletes meeting their standard and none who did not.

We will start by highlighting “Grundkriteriet” which we in English are referring to as the top eight criterion. Even if some sections of the SOC’s website are translated to English, we have not been able to find translations of what we will dig into below. As a consequence we will show it in Swedish first and present a rough translation in English below. Even as we always try as best we can, it is a fact that our translations are not made by an authorized translator – they have been done by our writer, on the go. As this is the case we want to highlight that any statements/guidelines and similar made in languages other than English can never be taking as direct quotes or perfect translations.

“2.1) Grundkriteriet: Uttagen aktiv ska ha uppnått resultat och visat sådan form att han/hon bedöms kunna konkurrera om minst åttonde platsen på OS. Grundkriteriet ska uppnås i högsta internationella konkurrens med olympisk räkning, dvs. med beaktande av det antal aktiva per nation som reglerna medger för OS-deltagande. Även om resultat för grundkriteriet saknas kan en aktiv undantagsvis tas ut till OS, om de sportsligt ansvariga i OSF och SOK bedömer att den aktives aktuella nivå motsvarar grundkriteriet.”

2.1) Top eight criterion: Any selected athlete must have achieved results and shown form so that he/she can be evaluated to be able to compete for, as a minimum, an eighth place finish at the Olympic Games. The criterion can only be fulfilled in competitions of the highest international level and will take into account that each NOC (National Olympic Committee) will have a cap of their starters at the Games (editor note: max 3 starters per country in the sport of athletics). Even if the results required for fulfilling the top eight criterion have not been met, athletes can sometimes/rarely be selected for the Olympics if the people in charge of evaluating performances at both the relevant sports federation and the SOC agree that the athlete’s current level is such that he/she is in contention for a top eight.

Maybe it is properly defined elsewhere, but unless that is the case, is it not a problem that the top eight criterion does not define clearly how the phrase ‘to be able to compete for an eighth place finish’ is to be understood? Are you competing for an eighth place finish if you have a two per cent chance? What about a five, 10, 20 or 50 per cent chance? Would it not be wiser to define clearly what kind of a chance is required?

Luckily we have access to the document highlighting, among other things, how the selection criteria would be applied specifically to the sport of athletics. This document provides some helpful insights. Below we will highlight some of the relevant passages of the document.

Producing the standards is important. This is clearly shown in the paragraph below:

“Resultatnivåer vägledande för nominering och uttagning publiceras som en bilaga till detta dokument. Nivåerna är IAAF.s egna kvalgränser förutom maraton där nomineringsnivåerna är satta utifrån resultat gjorda på de senaste VM och OS och bedöms motsvara topp 8 resultat.”

Performance levels indicative of nomination and selection are published as an appendix to this document. The levels are the qualifying standards made by World Athletics, except for marathons where the nomination levels are set based on results made at the recent World Cup and Olympics that are judged to correspond to top eight results.

Below we have made a few changes from Swedish to English and copied the table from the appendix which the text refers to:

100 m10.0511.15
200 m20.2422.8
400 m44.9051.35
800 m1.
1500 m3.
5000 m13.13.5015.10.00
10000 m27.28.0031.25.00
Marathon<2.11.00 (+placering)*<2.28.00 (+placering)*
3000 m Steeplechase8.
110 / 100 m13.3212.84
400 mH48.9055.40
Pole Vault5.804.70
Long Jump8.226.82
Triple Jump17.1414.32
Shot Put21.1018.50
Discus Throw66.0063.50
Hammer Throw77.5072.50
Javelin Throw85.0064.00
Decathlon / Heptathlon83506420
4 x 100 m38.50*43.10*
4 x 100 m3.02.00*3.28.00*

To sum up, Perseus is right: standards or performance levels were defined. These levels were indicative of nomination and selection.

Does that mean anyone who did deliver should be selected and everyone who did not should not be selected?

It seems the answer to this question is ‘no’. The paragraph we have pasted below indicates that regardless of the SOC’s performance standards being met or not, there would be an evaluation of all the results of the various athletes:

“Uttagning av friidrottare till OS i Tokyo, på såväl grundkriteriet som framtidskriteriet, görs efter en samlad bedömning av resultat och prestationer på internationella tävlingar med hög internationell konkurrens.”

The selection of athletes for the Tokyo Games, for both the top eight criterion and that future criterion (criterion allowing for younger athletes who do not meet top eight criterion to nonetheless achieve selection), is done after an overall assessment of results and achievements in international competitions of a high standard.

So, unless we have misunderstood, an overall assessment is required for all athletes; the ones who hit the standards as well as the ones who do not.

We understand another paragraph in the document to mean that producing the standard does not guarantee selection. We will not paste this, though, as the article is already extremely long.

Interestingly there is even a specific paragraph which clearly stipulates what should be done in the cases of athletes like Lindh and Jacobsson, who had not produced the standard but were nevertheless invited by World Athletics:

Om en aktiv inte uppnår resultat enligt nomineringsnivåerna enligt bilaga men blir inbjuden till OS via rankingsystemet. Då görs en samlad bedömning av resultat uppnådda under kvalperioden om den aktive anses uppnått grundkriteriet eller framtidskriteriet.”

If an athlete does not achieve results in accordance with the nomination levels from the appendix, but is invited to the Olympics via the ranking system. An overall assessment of the results achieved during the qualifying period will be made to assess if the athlete is considered to have achieved the top eight or future criterion (was explained earlier in the text).

So, the document clearly specifies that in the cases of Lindh and Jacobsson an assessment will be made to determine if the athletes can be selected or not.

For us the above means that the SOC likely assessed the chances of Lindh and Jacobsson and decided that they were not in contention for top eights.

This is interesting for several reasons. Firstly because as we already have shown, a lot of people knowledgeable about the sport of athletics seem to disagree, not only with the usage of the top eight criterion but also with the SOC’s judgment. Several experts even seem to strongly disagree with the SOC’s judgment.

As this is the case are we not entitled to proper in-depth explanations of why the SOC found that these athletes did not have top eight chances?

If the SOC is not obliged to produce their reasoning, does that not mean that the selection process is not at all transparent? If the selection process is not transparent, how can anyone determine if the athletes have been treated fairly and if SOC is even in possession of the required knowledge to make such decisions?

Should we just accept as fact that the SOC have the expertise to make such decisions for the several dozens of sports they work with?

To us the selection process appears opaque. We have searched, with no success, for information about the SOC’s reasoning – especially about Lindh, because we feel in a good position to assess the quality of both the decision and the reasoning behind it. However, we obviously cannot rule out the idea that detailed explanations have been provided by the SOC.

The closest to an explanation we have seen is from a news article on SVT:

“De resultaten som de har gjort räcker tyvärr inte till. Melker (Svärd Jacobsson reds. anm) och Lovisa (Lindh reds. anm) är internationellt kvalade via ranking, men har inte de faktiska resultaten i meter och centimeter, eller minuter och sekunder som krävs för att vi ska bedöma en topp åtta-nivå”

Their results are unfortunately not good enough. They have not produced the results in terms of height or time which are needed in order for us to assess that they have fulfilled the top eight criterion….

When pressed further this was followed up by:

Jag tycker att jag har svarat på det jag behöver svara på nu. Jag har flera andra som jag behöver prata med. Jag har försökt förklara grundkriteriet och hur vi har resonerat.”

I think I have answered what I need to answer. There are many others I will also need to talk to. I have tried to explain the criteria and how we have reasoned.

For us it is problematic that the answers above do not even seem to engage with what we think is the core question:

How did the SOC arrive at the conclusion that these results are not good enough to be in contention for top eight? What is it that makes the SOC think so?

If the SOC has not, and will not answer, how can the selection process be deemed to be transparent?

The document about the selection process for the sport of athletics makes clear that Karin Torneklint will nominate athletes for selection and that the SOC’s Peter Reinebo is in charge of making the final decision whether to select the athletes or not.

We reached out to Karin Torneklint, the former hurdler who won a Swedish Championships gold medal in the early 90s, coach of Susanna and Jenny Kallur, and for the last eight years förbundskapten (head coach) of the Swedish Athletics Federation. Below we will highlight some of our correspondence with her:

Q: Did you nominate Lindh and Jacobsson for selection to the SOC, only for the SOC to disagree and turn them down?
Karin Torneklint: I did nominate them as I felt that they more or less had fulfilled the top eight criterion.

Q: I cannot see that the SOC has ever answered or even properly engaged with the question of why Lindh’s results were not good enough to be considered to be in contention for a top eight. All I have seen is Reinebo say that “resultaten er inte på den nivån” (the results are not at a high enough level) and similar. This does not answer how he arrived at such a conclusion. Have you received a better explanation of how the SOC arrived at their conclusion, how they reasoned?

Karin Torneklint: No.

Q:  I made a rough estimation that Lindh had about a 12-20 per cent chance of making the final. Is such a chance supposed to be enough or not enough to fulfill the top eight criterion? 

Karin Torneklint: I don’t know.

During our correspondence, Torneklint pointed out that the top eight criterion was supported by the majority of the SOC’s annual meeting and that the Swedish Athletics Federation will need to work hard to get this changed to avoid similar situations in the future.

The fact that even Torneklint, who nominated the athletes, had not received an in-depth explanation of why the SOC turned them down and were not aware of what kind of chance for a top eight was needed to fulfill the criteria was surprising to us.

We also contacted Lovisa Lindh. Some comments made by her can be read below:

“Right now my only focus is on the future and I am really trying to stay positive. Even as my current focus revolves around the rest of my season, I don’t think the discussion with the SOC is a closed chapter.

 “I am far from ready to retire, I am for sure going for a few more years.

“Based on my conversations with the SOC, I never got the feeling that they had even cared to make any careful analysis of my races.

“The only explanation I got from the SOC was that I had not proven to them that I have top eight potential.”

The top-eight criterion only states that an athlete needs to have a REASONABLE chance to be top eight in the Games. Nowhere in the criterion is it declared how to actually define a ‘reasonable chance’. To define ‘reasonable’ is all up to one person/Reinebo.”

Even as we were very happy to learn that Lindh feels her shape is good and that her plan is to keep competing for years, we were shocked by the fact that even the athlete herself does not seem to feel that she has been provided an explanation for why running faster than two minutes in both of her last races and clearly showing her form was improving meant that she did not fulfill the top eight criterion.

Furthermore, is it not peculiar that not even proper insiders seem to know what kind of top eight chance is needed to fulfill the criterion? Does it make sense to add the power to subjectively define what kind of chance is needed to fulfill the criteria to the already vast powers of the SOC? Is it not the case that having this vital piece of information unknown makes it next to impossible to properly scrutinize the SOC’s decision making and to try to hold them accountable?

Benn Harradine, the 2010 Commonwealth Discus Gold Medalist, asked some interesting questions in a recent tweet. One of them in particular caught our attention:

“Who holds the SOC accountable”?

To us it seems like the only ones who can hold the SOC accountable are the SOC’s member federations and the Swedish press corps.

Are the various member federations well equipped to do this? Is it not plausible that they in some cases, for somewhat understandable reasons, will first and foremost be guided by self-interest?

Have the Swedish sports journalists not been shockingly docile regarding this matter?

As we are not happy with how the SOC have been held accountable regarding their recent non-selections, we decided to give it our best shot ourselves. We will try to hold the SOC accountable.

As anyone reading this is likely to now be shaking violently with laughter, I am happy to report that we are well aware that Sportindepth actually being able to do that is about as likely as a mosquito being able to transport an elephant to the moon and back.

Nonetheless, we decided to give it a try with this article. The logical first step in our opinion was to contact the SOC to see if we could obtain some answers. We contacted the SOC on Friday 13 August and after a bit back and forth we sent the SOC a brief explanation and these three questions:

“1) Have I missed something? Have the SOC ever properly engaged with the question of how you arrived at the conclusion that Lovisa Lindh did not fulfill the top eight criterion? If yes, it would be greatly appreciated if you would point me in the direction of the answer.

If no, is someone at the SOC willing to explain how you arrived at the conclusion?

2)    Unless I am mistaken, the SOC made it clear that Melker Svärd Jacobsson would need to clear a height of 5.80 to be judged to have met the top eight criterion. How can the SOC justify this, as a height of 5.65 would have sufficed in the last four Olympics?

3)    How is the top eight criterion to be understood? How good of a chance does an athlete need for the SOC to conclude that the athlete has fulfilled the criterion? Can you indicate the percentage chance needed? Is it 0.5 per cent or 1 per cent or more like 5 per cent or 20 per cent or 50 per cent or 80 per cent? Where does the SOC draw the line?”

After some correspondence, we were informed that the SOC’s contact person, who by now already had answered many mails and who in no way had indicated that he was unavailable to answer questions, was in fact on vacation. We could expect answers when he was back at work in September. Unfortunately waiting two to six weeks to launch this article is not an option for us. As this is the case, we replied that we do still want the SOC to tell their side of the story. Finally, we asked to be informed if he would change his mind or if he was able to find the time to answer sooner.

Hopefully we will get our answers in September. We will just have to wait and see. When/if we get answers, we will obviously consider incorporating them in this article, and/or run a follow-up.

For now we are left with many unanswered questions. We have no idea how the SOC arrived at their decisions.

Is this not convenient for the decision-makers? Does it not mean that it is impossible to assess the quality of both the process and the decisions, in a good way? Is it even possible to judge if the decision-makers possessed the necessary expertise to make such decisions?

Does the strong condemnation coming from many corners of the sport not make it entirely plausible that the SOC’s decisions were not optimal?

Is it not the norm in Sweden that people in positions of power do not get to make decisions with huge ramifications for young people’s lives, which are widely condemned by experts and still retain the prerogative not to properly answer questions about it? If this is not the norm in Sweden, why should the SOC be treated any differently to other entities?

We do not wish for any kind of witch-hunt, but surely the SOC needs to properly engage with the questions. If they do not, should not the responsible people cease enjoying their privileged positions?

If the decision makers at the SOC will not give proper answers and justify the decisions made, does that not mean they are morally obliged to resign?

We realise that, as foreigners looking in on the process from the outside, it is entirely possible that there are many things we have failed to grasp and a lot of information we can have missed. Even so, this is far from the first time that the SOC’s selections, or more often non-selections, have caused controversy.

Unfortunately it seems to happen at regular intervals. If nobody in the mainstream press takes this on and demands proper answers, I suspect we will be in for more of the same going forward. I can easily foresee that there is a chance that we will, in the future, experience other undignified spectacles, where middle-aged men in positions of power crush the dreams of young aspiring athletes….

For the record I am a middle-aged man myself. The above should in no way be construed as hatred for all middle-aged men…

Finally I challenge the members of the Swedish press corps to check if the SOC has provided proper answers as to how and why they concluded that these athletes, who were invited by World Athletics, did not fulfill the top eight criterion. If the SOC has not, is it not the job of the journalists to press hard for such answers?

If the answers are not forthcoming, should the press not inform the public that the SOC will not properly justify their decisions and that there seems to be good reasons to suspect the decisions were not optimal?

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.

View all posts by Mathis Brorstad →

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