UKA European XC 2012 Selection policy impact on NCAA athletes

NCAA / European Selection Dilemma


The NCAA Cross Country Championships are now in the books, and following a very muddy Saturday afternoon in Liverpool, so are the British European trials. As is the case every year, debate will invariably arise on the pros and cons of the UKA selection policy, and whether US based British collegiates should be selected without going through the trial process. Last year we wrote an article discussing the pros and cons of selecting NCAA athletes, and with the changes that have taken place in the selection policy this year, it is something worth considering again.

This year the selection policy is almost entirely objective, with 34 of the 36 spots available being settled beyond dispute on Saturday. The only discretion available is in both senior races, where only the first five athletes were guaranteed selection, leaving one spot open to be decided by the selectors. After the controversy involved with the Olympic selections, it is little wonder that UKA have taken a different stance this time. In sharp contrast to UKA’s selection process, the Irish selectors seem to embrace welcoming athletes onto the team who perform well at the NCAA Championships. David Rooney, Breandan O’Neil, Shane Quinn, and Sarah Collins have all been selected this year based on their strong performances in Kentucky.

Below is a list of things to consider when thinking about the pros and cons of an almost fully objective selection system that prevents NCAA athletes being picked without having to do the trial.

  • The transparency an objective system brings has to be worth something. Athletes, coaches, and selectors know exactly what is required. The ‘who you know’ or ‘what you’ve done’ elements are removed, and it is unquestionably the fairest method to use.
  • Britain is historically the most successful nation at the European Championships. Generally speaking, regardless of who is selected, the athletes UKA send invariably go on to do well and in most cases pick up team medals. On this basis, why deprive the 6th finisher at the trial if they are more than capable of performing at the European Cross. This is one contrast that can be made between Britain and Ireland. Without the strength in depth that the British have (especially the age group races), Ireland are perhaps more willing to be flexible in ensuring that only their strongest athletes are selected.
  • 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.
  • The European and NCAA Cross Country races 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 often held on muddy courses, selections based on performances on a fast course in Kentucky could be risky.
  • Cases like the Keith Kelly example lead to differences in opinions 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. Between 2006 and 2010, one British athlete was selected for the Europeans based on their NCAA performance without running the trial. On only one occasion did the athlete go on to finish outside the top 10 (Andrew 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. With four British athletes inside the top 30 this year, there are potentially plenty of options.
  • Why do the selectors differentiate between the senior race and the U23 / junior races in the selection policy? Could a British athlete now be selected for the senior team based on their NCAA performance? With Tom Farrell finishing in the top 10 this year, he certainly could put forward a strong case to justify selection.
  • 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.

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