Triathlete senior editor Aaron Hersh writes an op-ed piece about why he believes 2008 Olympic gold medalist Emma Snowsill should have been selected to Australia’s 2012 London Olympic team. This piece was updated on Monday, June 11th following the news that Snowsill’s appeal was rejected.
The process used to select the Australian triathlon team is subjective. A panel called the Triathlon Australia Elite Selection Committee gets to hand-pick the athletes that are submitted to the Australian Olympic committee, who has the “exclusive authority” to send triathletes to the Games.
This selection format offers one major advantage over a system that puts the power in the hands of the athletes: It creates a safety net to keep a truly exceptional athlete on the team should they become ill or injured and unable to race to their potential in the year before London. That exact scenario played out over the past 18 months as Emma Snowill, the Beijing Olympic champion, has struggled with illness and injury.
The Australian selectors had the enviable problem of picking their women’s Olympic roster from four athletes capable of winning a medal. Emma Jackson, Emma Moffatt, Emma Snowsill and Erin Densham have all proven they can race with the best on the ITU circuit.
Jackson placed fourth in the 2011 ITU WTS (ITU’s premier race series) standings thanks to a season of consistent top-10 finishes.
Moffatt earned her ticket to the games before any of her countrywomen by winning the 2010 and 2009 world titles and multiple ITU WTS and WCS races in the last three years.
Densham returned from heart surgery to dominate the early 2012 ITU season. She has raced five times this year, earning a fourth-place finish, a third, a second and two key wins.
Snowsill, the 2008 Olympic champion, hasn’t won a premier-level ITU race since 2010. She has dealt with injury and illness. She finished third and fifth at WTS races in 2011. She is arguably the most accomplished female ITU athlete of all time and is 30 years old.
It was revealed this past Tuesday that Emma Moffatt, Erin Densham and Emma Jackson are going to the Olympics. Snowsill was left off the team. Her appeal was rejected, sealing the decision. Unless they know something about her health, the selectors got it wrong.
Triathlon Australia created a multi-page document containing a list of the nine criteria that govern the selectors’ decision process. I sorted through race results to assess the merit of these four athletes based on the four objective, results-based criteria laid out in this document. TA also mandated the athletes run below 33:30 in one Olympic-distance triathlon 10K during the selection period. This requirement is suspect, since split times depend heavily on the course and conditions, but all four broke that threshold at least once since the 2008 Olympic Games.
Criteria 1: A demonstrated ability to win WCS (since renamed renamed WTS) races since January 1 2009 up to May 1 2012.
Moffatt: Five WCS/WTS wins in that time period, but only one since the start of the 2010 season.
Jackson: Zero WCS/WTS wins.
Densham: One WCS/WTS win, which came this April at ITU World Triathlon Sydney.
Snowsill: Three qualifying WCS/WTS wins in that period, most recently the Grand Final in September of 2010.
Verdict: Snowsill and Moffatt are practically equivalent in this category. Moffatt has the most, but the longest drought between wins. Snowsill has the biggest wins, but hasn’t won in 20 months. Densham only has one victory, but it came this spring. Jackson, having never won a WTS/WCS event, clearly looses ground to the other three.
Criteria 2: Podium results in ITU WCS races since 1 January 2009 up to May 1 2012.
Moffatt: 13 podium finishes.
Jackson: One podium finish.
Densham: Two podium finishes in that period, both coming this spring.
Snowsill: Five podium finishes.
Verdict: Moffatt is the definite winner here.
Credential 3: History of results in ITU WCS races and “major” Championship races such as the ITU WCS Grand Final and Olympic Games, run over the Olympic distance according to ITU rules since 1 July 2008 up to 1 May 2012.
Moffatt: Four qualifying results, including two world titles, Silver at the 2010 Sprint-distance world championship and the Bronze in Beijing.
Jackson: One result. She earned Silver at the 2011 Sprint world championship.
Densham: No qualifying results.
Snowsill: Two such results including the 2010 Grand Final and the 2008 Olympic gold.
Verdict: Snowsill deserves credit for registering the two best performances of the group, and Moffatt’s consistency again bolsters her case for selection. Jackson and Densham both fall behind the other two.
Criteria 4: Current form in races run over the Olympic distance according to ITU rules.
Moffatt: 13th place at World Triathlon Sydney and ninth at World Triathlon San Diego.
Jackson: DNF at World Triathlon Madrid, 14th at World Triathlon San Diego, 33rd at World Triathlon Sydney and 1st at OTU Triathlon Oceania Championships
Densham: 2nd at World Triathlon San Diego, 1st at World Triathlon Sydney, 1st at Mooloolaba Triathlon World Cup, 3rd at OTU Triathlon Oceania Championships.
Snowsill: 17th at World Triathlon San Diego, 14th at World Triathlon Sydney.
Verdict: Densham is the clear winner in this category, having dominated early season racing along with Brit Helen Jenkins. The three others all have mediocre results so far in 2012.
By my tally, Moffatt proved her worthiness in three of the four results-based categories, Densham in one, Snowsill in two. Jackson didn’t outdo the other three in any of the criteria, but also joined the senior ranks at the start of 2010, leaving her with fewer opportunities.
Densham’s results so far in 2012 are simply too much to ignore. She raced her way on to the team this spring by winning races and never placing worse than fourth. Moffatt was already in by verge of her 2009 and 2010 world titles and long-term consistency. The final slot appeared to come down to Jackson, the consistent performer who hasn’t yet broken through, and Snowsill, the proven champion on the mend from two years of setbacks. Since the start of 2011, neither has won a WTS race and both earned one podium finish.
Selection criteria five through nine are more subjective, including attributes such as “ability to take directions from the Head Coach” and “an athlete’s individual strengths that may enhance Australia’s ability to win the 2012 Olympic Games.”
The three athletes that were selected—Jackson, Moffatt and Densham—are all deserving and each has the tools to earn a medal, but, even if her dominance before 2008 and subjective criteria five through nine are ignored, Snowsill’s race resume still exceeds all Australian women except Moffatt. She did the second best job meeting the requirements set out by Triathlon Australia and has shown equal form in 2012 to Jackson. Neither has excelled so far. According to the selection criteria laid out by Triathlon Australia, the reason for Snowsill’s omission must be one of two things: either her intangible traits aren’t good enough or injury/illness will hamper her in August. If TA knows something about Snowsill’s health that the rest of us do not, her omission is justified.
I contacted Snowsill for comment and she declined until after the appeal (read an update here). If Snowsill has a reasonable chance to train and race at full strength this season, the only remaining reason to include Jackson instead of Snowsill is the intangible attributes listed in selection criteria five through nine, including traits such as course readiness, experience, chance to win gold and big-race performances. Snubbing Snowsill based on these conditions is indefensible. She is the greatest one-day performer of her generation and is perfectly suited to a flat and fast run course. She personifies the intangible traits needed for Olympic success.
She has been to one Olympics and won. She has been to one Commonwealth Games and won. She holds three world championships. Jackson, at 21 years old, is still on the up-swing of her career and Snowsill is closer to the end than the beginning, but her mind-blowing run split at the 2010 ITU Grand Final, her last major victory, is enough to demonstrate that Snowsill is not totally spent. After swimming and riding in the pack, the diminutive Aussie got off the bike surrounded by the women considered to be the favorites in London, then absolutely decimated them. Helen Jenkins, Paula Findlay, Nicola Spirig, Moffatt and others ran splits ranging from 35:05 to 35:09 and finished between second and seventh. Snowsill ran 33:08. Despite her shocking margin of victory, the outcome wasn’t unusual or surprising. Snowsill earned the reputation as the best clutch performer on the ITU circuit by repeatedly dominating her competition on the run. When Snowsill has her best race, she is on another level.
Her inconsistency over the past two years may be due to injuries and illness, and her relative talents and weaknesses make her bad days appear really bad. Snowsill can swim with the first pack when she’s fit, but when the best swimmers leave her behind she’s in trouble. With her tiny frame—Wikipedia has her listed at 108 lbs—she doesn’t have the strength to bridge up to the leaders if she misses the front swim group. As a result, she looses minutes on the bike and her explosive run split is wasted moving through the wreckage of the first group instead of creating that destruction herself. The difference between Snowsill winning and placing outside the top-10 often comes down to a few seconds on the swim.
Considering her current age and recent setbacks, she is the most likely of the four Australians who were in serious contention for an Olympic bid to have a terrible result. If the Australian selectors were picking a team to place well in the ITU’s yearlong WTS point-series championship (based on results in eight different races throughout the year), they got the team right. But Olympic success isn’t about consistently amassing top-10 finishes and collecting points with consistency. As Triathlon Australia’s own document states, their only objective when selecting the team is, “to win the gold medal.” Fourth place might as well be last place, and Snowsill is the consummate all-or-nothing racer capable of beating the favorites on their best days. Even though her 2011 season didn’t live up to the lofty expectation created by years of domination, Triathlon Australia’s subjective selection process gave them the opportunity to send the athlete with the best chance to win, and they failed to do so. Jackson has a bright future and is capable of medaling, but her next big victory will be her first.
Athletes and coaches across the world have come out in support of Snowsill on Twitter since the decision.
Brett Sutton @trisutto: That’s 2 not 1aus selectors left her out when best athlete in aus the other she gave them greatest perf ever seen at olym. 4time wc clowns
(Twitter-translated, this reads: That’s two, not one Australian Selectors who left [Snowsill] out when [she’s] the best athlete in Australia. The other she gave them the greatest performance ever seen at the Olympics. She is a four-time world champion, clowns.)
Sam Warriner @samwarriner: Just hearing the news – are you frickin serious Australia…no Emma Snowsill?! Selection panel you need firing – plain and simple.
Gina Crawford @Gina_crawford: Just read that the Aussie’s did not pick Emma Snowsill in their Olympic team!!! How crazy is that!
Chris McCormack said the following about Snowsill’s omission to Triathlete.com in an interview on Thursday:
When they told me who made the women’s team, my jaw hit the ground. I could not believe it. I was like, “My God.” You write a discretionary policy for athletes like Emma Snowsill. Athletes like Emma, who have been injured, and they have shown results in the past in that selection period and showing improvement and your biggest chance to win a medal, discretion is exercised to put those people on the team. If you’re not going to do that, then write a simple policy with 3 races where people go. I think the selection criteria amongst the Australians let a lot of people down. Emma Snowsill is the only woman—and I may be proved wrong…Moffy’s the toughest woman I know—who can beat Helen Jenkins. With discretion, I would have to have taken Emma Snowsill. The greatest female ITU triathlete of all time went to the Olympics and won it. It’s mind-boggling to me that she’s not on the team. Are you kidding me?
After her appeal was rejected, Snowsill posted this comment on her website:
I wish to announce that my appeal to the Triathlon Australia Appeals Tribunal has been dismissed.
Whilst I am upset with the outcome, I have to respect the decision of the Tribunal and will not be pursuing the matter further. I would like to stress that my appeal never involved a merits review of any of the athletes involved, nor the selection committee’s decision. It instead went to matters concerning the selection process, however the Tribunal was satisfied that there was no legal error to be found in the evidence before it.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their kind words and support. It has been a difficult time and one I am glad to have resolved. To that end, I would like to again apologise to those affected by my appeal and to thank the other athletes for their discretion in the matter. My appeal was never a criticism of their abilities and I sincerely wish them all the best for their preparations and performances in London.
Thank you again to everyone for your interest and support. I will have more to say in the coming days!