NCAA Euro XC Selection Argument - USA Athletics Scholarships

NCAA Euro XC Selection Argument

liverpooltrial

Following the conclusion of the US collegiate cross country season, the next major fixture in the calendar is the European Cross Country Championships. The European Cross is an event that the Brits have typically performed very well in, and early signs point to that continuing this year.  The first step for athletes wishing to compete is to make the team. For the Brits, this will be determined on Saturday at the trial race held at Sefton Park, Liverpool.

Whilst the vast majority of athletes will earn their place through the trials, the selectors do allow for discretion by only guaranteeing spots for the first three eligible athletes in each age group. Typically the remaining spots will go to the fourth, fifth, and sixth finishers at the trials, but this is not a given. If the likes of Mo Farah wish to compete in the Europeans, then it is unlikely that he would be required to run the trial to earn selection.

One way this selection policy has been used in recent years has been to select British athletes for the European Cross based on their performances at the NCAA Championships. The table below shows the athletes in recent years to make the British team without running the trial. Note that there are other athletes who have successfully attempted the tough double of running in Terre Haute on the Monday, then flew back to the UK to attend the trial on the following Saturday.

  Name

Year

Age Group

NCAA place

Euro place

Aine Hoban

2006

U23

7th

4th

Andy Baker

2007

U23

28th

12th

John Beattie

2008

U23

29th

6th

Charlotte Browning

2009

U23

20th

4th

Natalie Gray

2010

U23

15th

7th

As the table shows, the issue of athletes bypassing their respective national team trials has really come to the fore since the under-23 age group was added to the European Championships in 2006.  No juniors or seniors have earned selection this way yet. This would seem to make sense as the vast majority of athletes competing in the NCAA are under 23. To make a British senior team from the NCAA, well who knows what that would require? Top 5 as a minimum would our guess. It would arguably be just as difficult for a junior athlete (under 20) to finish in the top 40-50 at what would probably be their first attempt at the NCAA XC.

Following Monday’s race, where four British athletes ran superbly to finish in the top 40, the discussions inevitably follow ‘should athlete X be selected for the Europeans based directly from their run at the NCAA Championships’.

An amendment to the selection policy this year ensures that no such selections will take place. To quote the policy directly:

 ‘UK athletes based in the US and competing in the NCAA championships will be required to return home to compete in the trial if they wish to be considered for selection for the European Cross’

 Let us now consider the pros and cons of this new selection criteria. We will hold back from stating an opinion, but have tried to look at the argument from both sides of the coin.

Pros

It seems obvious to say that making a British team is going to be the target for athletes who compete in the British system throughout the year. There is often little extrinsic reward involved, and making a European Cross Country team can be hugely satisfying and justifies all the hard work and sacrifices involved in getting there. Contrast this to a British athlete who takes up a scholarship at an American university. Upon taking that scholarship, they will have a duty to compete for the university and in return all or some of their education and living will be paid for. The main target race for the US based athlete is the NCAA Championships, and this is what they strive towards all season. Following the NCAA, if the Europeans arises then it can be seen as a nice bonus and a chance of an early trip home.

Whilst the selection policy is still not completely transparent, this is a first step towards achieving it and removes a great deal of confusion and debate for the selectors. It will be interesting to see whether they ever take the ultimate step of only selecting the ‘first six past the post,’ as is the case with most US teams.

One other thing to consider is the racing itself. The European and NCAA systems are inherently different. Running well in one does not guarantee running well in the other a few weeks later. Keith Kelly is an extreme example of an athlete who won the NCAA Cross and then finished well down in the mid 20s a few weeks later at the Europeans. With the Europeans being hold on a notoriously muddy course this year, selections based on performances in Terre Haute could be risky.

Cons

Yes,  the new amendment does reduce the ambiguity somewhat by removing the need to compare for example 6th at the trial versus 40th at the NCAA Championships. However, it seems perhaps unfair to single out athletes competing in the NCAA as having to run the trials. The policy does not specify anything about excluding British athletes based abroad who are NOT competing within the NCAA system, as is the case with several of the highest performing British athletes.

Opinions are rightly divided on whether it is fair to select athletes who do not run the trial, but looking at the record of those NCAA athletes who have been selected in the past, it is fair to question why change of policy. During each of the last five years, one athlete has been selected for the Europeans based on their NCAA performance without running the trial. On only one occasion has an athlete gone on to finish outside the top 10 (Baker in 2007), and even on that he day he was the second British finisher. This precedent would suggest that a top 30 placing at the NCAA is ‘quite likely’ to lead to a top 10 finish at the Europeans as long as form is maintained. The way to get a more accurate statistic would be to look at some of the figures from other nations who go on to select athletes without requiring them to run a trial. Notably Ireland has a history of selecting athletes based on their NCAA performances, and there have been occasions where some of these athletes have underperformed. Last year however, their successful team in Albufeira consisted of three NCAA athletes.

One last thing to mention, there is travelling involved, but if arranged properly can actually be of benefit to US based NCAA athletes. They will have an extra week to recover and prepare for the Europeans versus those who run the trials. Good communication with the school, governing body, coach etc will all be crucial to getting this right.

To the best of our knowledge, Iona and CONAC’s Mitch Goose is the only athlete attempting the double this weekend.

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