Image: Getty Images / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images / Tina Tiller

SportsMay 29, 2024

The complicated path to Olympic selection, explained

Image: Getty Images / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty Images / Tina Tiller

Approximately 200 New Zealand athletes will head to the Olympics in Paris in July. While they’ve worked hard to have a shot at their Olympic dream, other athletes miss out. Zoe George looks at what separates the chosen ones from the also-rans.

I’m really good at sport and would love to compete in the Olympics. Do I just fill out an expression of interest?

If only it was that easy!

Here’s how it actually works: each Olympic sport has different qualifying criteria set by its international federation (IF). Each sport gets a “quota”, or number of athletes they can send to the Games.

Let’s use athletics as an example. There are two qualification pathways. Approximately 50% of places are given to athletes who meet entry standards – including achieving various metrics/times – at World Athletics events, and the remaining places are given to those with world rankings during the “qualification period”.

Also, only three athletes from each discipline can be entered by their national Olympic committee. So you might reach the IF criteria but if there are three other athletes in your discipline from New Zealand who are better than you, bad luck.

Rowing Women’s Four Kerri Williams, Davina Waddy, Jackie Gowler and Phoebe Spoors at a pre-Olympics event on February 27, 2024. (Photo: Michael Bradley/Getty Images for NZOC)

Am I more likely to get to the Olympics playing a team sport or an individual event?

This is an incredibly complex question and a tough one to answer.

You have to be an excellent athlete in your own right to secure any place, in any sport at the Games. The vast majority of the 32 sports in Paris are individual sports, some with a certain “team” element – think the 4 x 200m freestyle relay in swimming or the coxless four in rowing.

Other team sports include handball, hockey, football, basketball 3×3 and rugby sevens. Thanks to the growing popularity of the last three in Aotearoa, you’re competing with lots of other athletes for the coveted spots. But once you’re in the team, there’s less pressure on meeting individual standards.

I’ve met the IF criteria, and I’m the best athlete in my sport in NZ. Can I go now?

No. You need to be “nominated” by your sport to the New Zealand Olympic Committee for consideration, and you have to meet additional NZOC standards too.

For individual athletes – or in sports where athletes compete together in a relay, pairs, etc – along with meeting IF standards, you must also be capable of achieving a top 16 place at the Games, with the potential of gaining an Olympic Diploma (top eight), and have a track record that demonstrates you will be competitive.

Even if you don’t meet the last two criteria, you can still be selected at the NZOC’s discretion if you will have a positive impact on another athlete’s chances at a medal – for example, Caitlin Deans and Laticia-Leigh Transom have been added to the women’s 4 x 200m freestyle relay supporting Erika Fairweather and Eve Thomas. You can also achieve selection if you will likely place in the top eight at the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028.

This week the “top eight at LA” criteria came into question when it was revealed 49erFX class sailors Jo Aleh and Molly Meech – who have three previous Olympic medals between them – were selected without meeting selection criteria, namely not achieving a top 10 placing at selection regattas, in part because of their chances of doing well in Los Angeles.

For teams, they need to meet their IF requirements, and be capable of advancing beyond the first round and into the top eight, among other criteria.

Your behaviour, other extenuating circumstances like injury, and you fully complying to NZOC’s anti-doping regulations are also taken into consideration.

Weightlifter David Liti gets a hug from 98 year old Mary Cutler at the Olympic Games New Zealand weightlifting selection announcement at the Logan Campbell Retirement Village, on May 21, 2024. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images for NZOC)

I’m an individual athlete. What does that mean exactly?

Let’s say your International Federation has 30 Olympic quota spots, you squeak in by meeting qualifying criteria and you’re ranked 29th in the world. You may have qualified, but the NZOC may deem you incapable of achieving a top 16 place. Guess what, you might not be going to the Games.

That’s not fair!

Some athletes agree with you! This “top 16” rule has thwarted many athletes’ dreams of competing at the Olympics.

Pole vaulter Eliza McCartney recently criticised the policy and is calling for the NZOC to overhaul their criteria.

It’s the same criteria that frustrated sprinters Zoe Hobbs and Eddie Osei-Nketia during the Tokyo 2020 Games. The duo qualified under their IF criteria, but the NZOC said no.

Hobbs wrote that non-selection under the NZOC policy hurt. She said non-selection inhibits experience and exposure, and impacts other opportunities including financial support.

Thankfully it didn’t deter Hobbs, who is one to watch in Paris. Osei-Nketia quit sprinting and is now playing US college football.

Sounds like lots of stars need to align. What sport can I move into to have the best shot at going to the Olympics?

New Zealand is incredibly competitive in rowing, athletics, canoe racing and sailing. Aotearoa has won 93 medals from these four sports in our Games history. We also hold our own in swimming, cycling, equestrian and rugby sevens.

On the other hand, the reason we have won fewer track and field medals is because athletics is one of the most-participated sports in the world, so the international standards are incredibly high.

If you’re looking to the future – particularly if you are a woman – start playing cricket, as it’s being added to the LA 2028 Olympics. It’s a sport New Zealand is reasonably competitive at, and thanks to the now serious investment by NZ Cricket into girls and women – including more playing opportunities, better financial support and better pathways – it’s a sport women now have a fighting chance in.

I’ve made it to the Games! What’s the likelihood of winning a medal?

Approximately 1,100 athletes – about 0.02% of all New Zealanders globally right now – have represented Aotearoa in our 104-year Olympic history. (In 1908 and 1912 we formed an “Australasia” team with Australia. We first competed as NZ in 1920.)

In those 104 years, New Zealand has won 143 medals; 55 gold, 35 silver and 53 bronze. Only 16 athletes have won more than two. You do the maths.

Keep going!