Musings on National Team Selection

Article by: 
Dr. Patrick D. Robinson
May 17, 2020

Decades ago, the majority of track and field athletes who were selected to our national teams lived, trained and studied overseas - almost exclusively in the USA. They were the beneficiaries of track scholarships. The outstanding performances of the overseas based athletes made it into the foreign press and soon thereafter to the local press.

Back then, it often happened that overseas based athletes were picked for national teams solely on their reported performance abroad - without ever competing in the equivalent of the National Senior Championships of that era. Indeed, some athletes would leave from their overseas bases and without setting foot in Jamaica and head directly to the meet venue. It sometimes happened, that an athlete who bypassed Jamaica, arrived at the meet in poor form.

Early in the presidency of the late, great, Neville “Teddy” McCook, The JAAA made the rule requiring participation in the National Senior Championships mandatory in order to earn selection to Olympic and World Championships teams. Foreign based athletes were required to pay their travel expenses to come to Jamaica for the trials with the understanding that such expenditure would be refunded by the JAAA in the event they earned selection. Athletes back then didn’t earn money (amateur status was mandatory), so it behooved them to show up fit for trials, and thereby minimize the risk of not making the team and jeopardizing their refund. One great spin-off from the ruling was that local track fans and the local media were able to interact with our star athletes on Jamaican soil and to see them perform in the flesh.

Under Teddy McCook, the rule was strictly applied as rules should be, and indeed was no respecter of persons. Despite Juliet Cuthbert’s stellar double silver medalist performance in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, she failed the following year (1993) to gain a place on team to the World Championships because she was absent from the trials, due to injury. There was no medical exemption then.

The rules governing selection of athletes for World Championships and Olympic teams were modified to grant exemption from the Trials to world ranked athletes who were sick or injured at the time of the Trials. Thanks to the medical exemption clause in the selection rules, Jamaica and sport fans around the world were spared the very dismal prospect of the 2016 Rio Olympics without the participation of megastar, legend Usain Bolt. For small countries like Jamaica that lack the depth of big, and very big countries, the rule is a good one.

Athletes benefiting from medical exemption, despite their world ranked status are not granted automatic selection, but must, understandably, be adjudged fit before the final date for submission of entries. Being adjudged or declared fit (even by doctors, physiotherapists, coaches) should not on its own, secure selection of a medically exempt athlete over the athlete who finished third in the trials. The third-place finisher, in all likelihood, also world ranked, had showed up on the day of reckoning and performed in the open for all to see.

Athletes today are professionals, and to be denied the opportunity of competing in any of the top two meets in the world, The Olympics and the World Championships, must adversely affect their earning power for the entire competition season. It is essential that, in the interest of fair play and transparency, there should be a “ run off “ between the two athletes before the final date for submission of entries, to decide who gets the place. At the very least, it should be required of the medically exempt athlete, a performance after the trials at a track meet (to ensure transparency) that betters the performance of the thirdplace finisher at the trials. No secret, behind the scenes evaluation of a medically exempt athlete should be the basis for displacing an athlete who transparently and justly earned a third place in the trials itself. It is no secret that there are bad actors and cheats in the sport of Track and Field, as evidenced by the use of illicit performance-enhancing substances by some. We should not be lulled into believing that the medical exemption clause is immune from abuse. There must be constant vigilance, as it is possible to feign some illnesses and injuries for the purpose of getting medical exemption to further one or another agenda.

(This article is written with the perspective of someone who has been an athlete, coach, doctor, track meet official, team official, administrator, and a student of the sport for more than six decades.)