Thursday, 21 June 2012

Selection Woes

In the last few weeks of what will be an unprecedented British Sporting Summer the issue of selection for our national sports teams has come to the fore. The prize of selection for major sporting events, particularly a home Olympics, could not be greater. With selection, comes non selection and there the headaches begin. There is undoubtedly a huge element of the subjective about the decision making process. Choosing between 2 individuals with so many variables, positives and negatives, will inevitably be tricky. There will have to be an element of gut instinct and intuition. Who do you believe can deliver under the ultimate stress of high performance? Who do you trust? Maybe this will be based upon your history with that athlete. Johnny Wilkinson was a great example of that. Clive Woodward would back his number 10 over other candidates who had perhaps displayed more form and fitness. Reason? When previously tested Wilkinson had delivered at the critical moment for his coach (2003 World Cup Final). That created an almost unbreakable bond between them.
Then there are the extraneous complications. Rain forests have been destroyed debating the Rio Ferdinand issue. What is clear is that the selection or non selection of Rio has little to do with footballing ability and fitness. It has been argued that Ferdinand can no longer play games every 4 days and that accordingly he is unsuitable for tournament conditions. This is obvious bunkum, many players are selected for squads who could only dream of making even one appearance in the tournament, a fate incidentally that might have befallen the celebrated Wayne Rooney if England had not progressed beyond the group stage. The non selection of Rio quite obviously has everything in fact to do with the selection of another, John Terry. For obvious reasons, both cannot be in the squad. Roy Hodgson chose Terry over Ferdinand. That was his call. What is tricky is the PR situation that subsequently engulfed Hodgson? Through a situation not of his making Hodgson, with one arm tied behind his back by sub judice considerations, is forced to give half explanations for his decision and to take something of a pasting in the process. However having now reached the Quarter Finals and qualified first in their group, nobody is talking about Rio anymore. Such is the nature of sport.
The Olympic selection debate meanwhile is coming to boiling point. At least 3 cases have thrust themselves into the headlines this week.

 British Taekwondo (BT) has tied itself in knots and allowed its opponents enormous capital to tear its procedures apart with its handling of the Aaron Cook case. To the outside onlooker, the non selection of Cook, world ranked number 1, in favour of Muhammad Lutalo, world ranked 9, makes little sense. Throw in a scenario in which Cook leaves the inner sanctum of the British Camp and decides to train alone, criticising the negative tactics he was 'forced to adopt' by officials and then achieves greater success without the body charged with Olympic selection and you have all the ingredients for a conspiracy theory and a decision based upon improper considerations. The BOA were so concerned that they intervened through their Olympic Qualification Standards panel (OQS) and concluded that British Taekwondo had not followed  procedures which were 'impartial and consistent with the approved procedures'. The selection process had to be gone through 3 times before the BOA grudgingly accepted the decision. They remained extremely critical, but deemed  that British Taekwondo had finally followed appropriate procedure. That is by no stretch of the imagination an endorsement of the selection decision, more an admission that they concluded that they could not intervene further.
In another surprising case  British Fencing claimed that they had not considered another Cook, Keith this time, for Olympic selection because he had not provided his contact details and was thus considered unavailable. That is a PR disaster and an untenable position. Proper and impartial consideration of the merits could not be criticised, but this approach is frankly ridiculous for something so cherished as an Olympic spot.

Today Aaron Cook is claiming that he has evidence to show that British Taekwondo had been planning his exclusion since 2011. BT strongly deny this. The BOA is being asked to reopen the whole issue.
Powerful voices such as Sir Steve Redgrave have described Cook as 'the only choice'.
 It is only when something as big as the Olympics comes along that the spotlight is shone upon such procedures. Usually such decisions, made by a tight knit clique, often with 'vested interests', having worked with some of the athletes concerned, or fallen out with others, are subjected to little scrutiny. In my experience selection policy is poorly written and  is not carried out with the necessary open application of the appropriate criteria. The right decisions may be arrived at, but it is sometimes difficult to justify the method to arrive there.
Nonetheless should Lutalo Muhammad retain his place on the team and go on to win Olympic Gold then Aaron Cook will unfortunately be as good as forgotten.
Meanwhile many have praised the US Athletics selection procedure. Athletes are selected on the basis of the US trials (they happened last week). No allowance is made for injury or loss of form. First 3 qualify - end of. Incredibly though they failed to contemplate the possibility of a dead heat. Last week Allyson Felix and Janeba Tarmoh tied for 3rd place in the Women's 100m trial. There is nothing in place to resolve this issue. There are apparently 3 solutions (they have a week to resolve this!) Firstly one of them could withdraw (unlikely!), secondly they could agree to a run off (they haven't yet!) or thirdly and frankly worst option, the toss of a coin could decide who goes to the Olympics. Who could live with that? Another powerful and slightly humiliating lesson in getting all the bases covered when deciding selection criteria.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Sisters Pt 2 - Unfamiliar Places

Women's soccer is advancing at pace in the Western World (see Part 1). This is evidenced by the increasing traffic relating to the women's game across my Twitter feed. USA v China (won by US) was recently a sell out (shade under 20,000 fans). In spite of the setback of Women's Professional Soccer announcing permanent cessation of activities in USA, there is a bright future.
[Since I wrote that Women's Football (soccer) has been reborn in the US as NWSL and is set to be bigger, better and more stable - more of that in Part 3]
But what of the rest of the world and in particular in the Middle East Immediately a raft of issues spring to mind, some common to men's soccer, such as poverty and political upheaval and some distinct to the female perspective such as discrimination and the enforced subservience of women, but also religious and cultural perspectives.
Where to begin? What about the small Gulf Coast island of Bahrain. Their Women's National team was only founded in 2003 and only played its first FIFA recognised international match in 2007 yet Bahrain has progressed steadily ever since. Much of this is due to the efforts of a dedicated few, but it is apparent that there is positive government support. The government views the promotion of female sport as important to its engagement with the world and its presentation as a modern state with some moderate western values. In addition there are numerous essential health issues to be addressed with regard to the issue of 50% of the population engaging in exercise. There are now competitive leagues for women players, indeed some of the Royal Family play. Bahrain has participated in, and even hosted international tournaments involving mainly Middle Eastern countries. Their World Ranking has climbed to 69.
Bahrain are not alone. Even ultra orthodox Iran, currently ranked 54th, has a surprising supporter of women's football. President Ahamadinejad is a huge football fan. He sees the game as an opportunity for associated glory, but he is in conflict with the conservative mullahs with regard to its development. Meanwhile the WNT has performed relatively poorly.
Women have been  banned from stadiums in Iran for men's matches. They are not allowed to associate in public with men and to look at the male players. Many enter stadiums dressed as men. Iran though has been awarded the Under 16 Youth Championship. As a pre - requisite Iran has had to give undertakings to the Asian Football Confederation with regard to the issue of discrimination. It is hoped that football and this tournament can be a vehicle for change.
Whilst Iran shows glimpses of opening up, mighty Saudi Arabia remains the fortress of conservatism. The Saudis largely reject participation by women in sport. They do not plan to allow female competitors at London 2012. There is no physical education programmed for girls in school. Participation in sport is only permitted in private settings. Clerics say that participation in sports is 'the steps of the devil'. Saudi Arabia blames the protests and uprisings across the Middle East upon, inter alia, the mingling of the sexes at sports events.
One issue which dogs the muslim world, an issue used by both sides to advance their position, is the hijab, the item of clothing which covers the hair, neck and ears of muslim women. FIFA has tied itself in knots on this issue. In 2011 Iran was banned from participation in London 2012 after some of its players wore the banned hijab during the qualification campaign. Subsequently, following a campaign by Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, now a FIFA Vice President, IFAB announced that the hijab could be worn during a trial period. It seemed that the rights of muslim observant women were to be advanced. IFAB now appears to be backtracking citing safety issues which many challenge. Have the conservative countries exerted improper pressure? Saudi Arabia would greatly enhance its arguments if women were not permitted to wear the hijab to play. A final decision on the issue is due at the IFAB Conference on the 2nd July 2012. It must be hoped that a retrograde step is not to made here. Surely a garment with appropriate quick release mechanisms such as velcro would satisfy all medical issues?
Undeterred other Middle Eastern countries have pressed on. Qatar is allowing women to participate at London 2012 for the first time. Qatar's president is one of the liberal leaders seeking wider engagement and recognition in the Western world.
Kuwait hosted the first Gulf University Female Soccer tournament. The university chancellor described it as a 'reflection of the social and cultural advancement of a country'. Islamists denounced it as 'contrary to human nature and good customs'.
Members of the Royal Families of Kuwait and the UAE have supported a conference on the participation of women in sport. Whilst there are cultural difficulties, UAE has a women's league although matches are played behind closed doors in the absence of men in recognition of the still evident cultural difficulties.