The Rule of Thorpe

In Olympic years, the Australian Swimming Championships double as the Olympic Trials, with the first two swimmers in each race – as long as they swim a qualifying time – automatically chosen to represent Australia at the Games. But in 2004, at what were the trials for the Athens Olympics, things took a rather interesting turn.

Many readers will remember the “real tragedy for the country” – for that’s how then PM John Howard referred to it – that occurred in the heats of the men’s 400m freestyle that year. Yep, Ian Thorpe fell into the pool, his false-start leaving the 3-time Olympic gold medalist disqualified from the event.

Not that this tragedy was to be of long-lasting consequence, mind. Bowing to massive pressure of all kinds, 2nd place-getter Craig Stevens gave up his lane in the race (he had also qualified for his favourite event, the 1500m, so he was still going to Athens even if he wasn’t in the 400m) so that Thorpe could swim. Despite the usual selection criteria, Australian swimming and the Australian public were more than willing to accept his decision.

At the time, I found this all rather disappointing from a moral standpoint. Not only did the media’s and the Prime Minister’s reaction to Thorpe’s error make a mockery of any notion that suggests that winning isn’t everything when it comes to the Olympics, but the sport’s governing body appeared to be changing their own rules on the run just for one bloke and the chance to win one more medal for Australia. On top of that, one could but wonder whether or not this precedent left future Olympic Trials ostensibly pointless if a swimmer the calibre of Thorpe or Hackett were involved but performing – as Thorpe clearly did – a little below par.

It only became more galling when one read the 2004 Olympic Games Australian Athlete Nomination Criteria.

On close inspection, the policy did not cover a person choosing to pull out of one event but still attend the Games, as Craig Stevens did. It did, however, state that:

“In the event a selected athlete has to be withdrawn from the team…their spot may be filled at the discretion of the High Performance Director after consultation with the National Head Coaches. If the position is to be filled the ASI [Australian Swimming Inc.] selectors will recommend to the ASI Board, from performances at the selection meet, the next available qualified swimmer in the event from which the athlete has withdrawn. If there is no swimmer qualified in that event the next highest ranked athlete in any event (world rankings, 2 per nation) where there is a vacancy will be selected provided that athlete meets the qualifying standards.”

And so it was clear: according to Australian Swimming’s policy, Joshua Krogh, the man who finished third at the Olympic Trials in the 400m freestyle with an Olympic A qualifying time, was “the next available qualified swimmer in the event from which the athlete has withdrawn”. When Stevens pulled out, Krogh should have been selected.

However, the policy did have a disclaimer written in bold:

“This criteria may be amended by the Board of ASI at its discretion. Amended criteria will be forwarded to State Associations and ASCTA for distribution to its members and mailed to all members of the Dolphins squad.”

The rest, as too many are rather prone to saying, is history. It’s history which many would argue justified the Board changing their rules for Thorpe. In Athens, he swam in the 400m, securing the 4th of what would become an Australian record 5 gold medals for his career in the process. And, we assume, all members of the Dolphins squad received a brand spanking new policy in the mail.

Meanwhile, Joshua Krogh did not earn an Olympic berth that he may or may not have deserved.

Unsurprisingly, the rules are different now. In 2011, when the Championships double as the trials for the World Championships in Shanghai, Swimming Australia’s policy for when a swimmer withdraws reads as follows:

“Should an athlete withdraw from the 2011 World Championships team following the team announcement, the National Head Coach may request from the Board of SAL [Swimming Australia Limited] to consider a replacement of the athlete. If a replacement athlete is required, the selectors will make a recommendation to the Board of SAL ”.

So don’t worry, Australia, this year we won’t witness a tragedy of a similar magnitude to that which we experienced back in 2004, nor should Swimming Australia have to change any policies on the Thorpedo’s behalf. Upon Thorpe’s announcement that he was returning to competitive swimming this week, national head coach Leigh Nugent said, “We know he is an outstanding athlete, and with application and commitment he will make a success of this comeback.” He also reminded us that “Ian Thorpe is a legend; you know he’s a living legend and he’ll bring a lot of leadership to our team,” and went so far as to suggest that “he’s such a great athlete he mightn’t need any racing. I don’t know, we’ll see how he goes. It’s just a wonderful announcement today.”

Oh yes, the coach’s prayers have been answered, and there will be no national tragedy. Even if Thorpe is disqualified from the Trials.

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3 Responses to The Rule of Thorpe

  1. Liz says:

    Interesting! Not quite sure what I think. It seems unfair from the ‘less recognised’ swimmers’ perspective to have such a blurry approach to qualification…but perhaps sensible to leave wiggle room for situations where someone who has repeatedly proven themselves has a rare below-par performance. And I must say that I think Thorpe should ‘re-prove’ himself by competing for selection for London rather than just being granted a spot!!!

    I only caught a glimpse of the comeback annoucement – saw a shot of a bloke saying something about Thorpe winning “for Qantas”. There seemed to be some amusement as he is actually sponsored by Virgin Blue – but I wasn’t sure what I thought about the notion of winning at the Olympics for your sponsor rather than your country (though perhaps at least this is honest!!!). What’s your take on it?

  2. edwardpolsen says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Liz! As the ever-wise HG Nelson said this week, “He’s spearheading our London pool golden tilt. He’s got nothing to prove, he’s just doing it for an airline.”

  3. Liz says:

    HG always puts it just right – here’s hoping for his involvement during London ’12!!!

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