Heartaches By The Number

By David

New Zealand has had to settle a king-size sporting problem this weekend. The world’s two best single scull rowers live in New Zealand. This weekend, Mahe Drysdale and Rob Waddell compete in trials on Lake Karapiro for the one place available to New Zealand in this year’s Beijing Olympic Games. Hopefully by the time I’m finished writing this piece I will be able to tell you which athlete will go and which one will have to find another boat or stay at home.

Drysdale is the current world champion and the fastest single sculler in history. He enjoyed a spectacular 2007. He edged out Marcel Hacker in one of the great single scull world championship finals to win his third straight title. He also won the Diamond Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta and numerous other titles in the United States and Europe.

Rob Waddell won the Sydney 2000 Olympic gold medal in the men’s single scull. He then retired from rowing and played high level rugby before taking up a position with Team New Zealand to defend yachting’s prestigious America’s Cup. Waddell’s return to rowing has been marked by an unofficial world record on the indoor rowing machine. Earlier this month over 5,000m he went under 15 minutes finishing in a time of 14:58.03. At the same trials, Drysdale finished in a personal best time of 15:11.

There are some in New Zealand who bemoan the fact that both these champions can’t be in Beijing to settle their personal rivalry. They have a point. If the function of the Olympics is to sort out who’s the world’s best, it seems a bit silly to exclude the world’s second best from the race. Don’t feel too bad for New Zealand though. America faces the same problem at every Olympics in a score of events.

Take swimming for example. The table below shows the number of Americans ranked in the world’s top eight in selected Olympic swimming events. Only two will get on the airplane to Beijing. The others, who could reasonably expect to make the Olympic final, and maybe even win the race, will instead be sitting at home watching it all on TV.

And so American swimming will have at least sixteen Waddells and Drysdales sitting at home watching events they are potentially capable of winning. Not only that – for the Americans, this problem exists at every Olympics. No wonder the Olympic Trials here are cut-throat affairs. However, it has to be said that they are only a natural extension of the fierce competition that characterises swimming in this country from Florida’s “eight and under” Junior Olympics to the Olympic Trials.

I think that’s why you seldom hear American elite swimmers complain about missing selection. Since they first put on water-wings, they’ve lived in swimming’s most merciless habitat; for them it’s normal.

The problem in America is not restricted to swimming. The table below shows the same data for selected track and field events. Track has the luxury of selecting three competitors in each event.

Another seventeen of the world’s best athletes are left sitting at home. Have you ever wondered why one of the US territories, such as the US Virgin Islands, Guam or American Samoa doesn’t offer these “left at homes” a chance to compete? All you need to represent these territories is a US passport and live in the territory for three or four months. With a little bit of imagination, the US Virgin Islands could go off to Beijing with the second best swim team and track team in the world. The Virgin Islands relegates Australia to the world’s third best swimming nation. What a wonderful thought!

But back to Waddell and Drysdale: what happened in that race? Well, Drysdale won two out of the three trials and is going to represent the country and New Zealand Rowing are going to have to find a spot in the crew of another boat for Waddell, or leave him in New Zealand. Incidentally, New Zealand Rowing had better pick Drysdale. Over the last couple of days they’ve made noises about not being tied by the result of the trial. That’s the sort of dishonest nonsense that Swimming New Zealand used to get up to as well. It used to drive me mad. At least in the States a trial means a trial.

This is international sport. It is right and proper; the loser of the rowing trial is going to have to watch his countryman compete in the Olympic event he could very well have won. Unless of course we rush through a US passport, and he too can represent the US Virgin Islands.