Getting To The Olympic Games

Daryl Szarenski, 2012 US Olympic Team, Air and Free Pistol (picture from 2010 Desert Midwinter competition, Phoenix AZ)

Being the best in your country is not enough.

The criteria for being selected to go and compete in the Olympic games changed in 1988. No longer was every country assured of a spot in each sport.

The process had to change for a lot of reasons.

One of the issues was the quandry of housing for the hosting country.

The hosting country might ask, “How much housing should we build for the athletes? Will Ghana send a figure skater? What about Norway? Will Lichtenstein send any competitors to any event?”

In previous Olympic games, sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. If a lot of countries sent their two athletes, the hosting country needed a lot of housing. If a lot of countries didn’t, Housing was never used.

And because the limit was “two per country”, countries with many great athletes couldn’t “fill in” for the countries that sent no one.

That unregulated approach made hosting an Olympic competition very expensive. They had to plan for the worst (maximum) and have housing go empty, or pick some small number and deal with the excess if it happened, often at the expense of the hosting country. Not many countries were willing to run the big financial risk that either approach dictated.

Also, countries with lots of great athletes wanted to know if there might be room for more.

Norway might say, “We can send two more world-class four-man toboggan teams if you have room.”

From the standpoint of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), that would guarantee a more competitive environment, one that would generate more interest, one that would further their purposes.

The IOC wanted to allow that. It would be good for “business”, the business of International Olympic competition.

So they changed the rules in 1988.

Starting then, the IOC would decide overall and then on a sport by sport basis, how many athletes to admit. The rules are complex and have to do with stadium requirements, length of time needed for one competitor (or team), total number of available days, other sports needing the same facility, and many other factors.

Once that number was known for a given sport, interested countries could then be awarded “quota places” by two mechanisms, historical because a given country always has lots of good competitors in a particular sport, and by competition in the years between Olympic events to adjust the number up or down depending on the performance of the athletes in each country.

The goal of this quota system is to ensure that 1) every country has the opportunity to send athletes if they are good enough, but 2) if some country decided, at the last minute perhaps, that they couldn’t use all of their quota after all, then the IOC would know what country could use it, and that country would have a good idea of who to call.

Here are some real numbers.

In the 2012 Summer Olympics in London that starts at the end of July, 103 nations are slated to participate. By most accounts, there are slightly under 200 countries in the world so only slightly more than half will participate.

At those Olympics, there will be fifteen shooting sports and, for them, the IOC has decided there will be a total of 390 quota places. That works out to an average of 26 competitors per event.

Obviously, only a small number of nations will compete in those sports. That’s what the time and space allow for the perceived interest according to which facilities were constructed.

So, how does the IOC decide which countries will get those 26 quota places?

In the 24 months preceding the Olympics, interested athletes must compete in various international events. These may be called Continental Championships, World Championships, World Cup and so on. At each of those events, the top several finishers are awarded points depending on where they finish in the final ranking for that competition. Typically only the top five finishers get points which are then scaled for 1st place, 2nd, 3rd and so on, each receiving fewer points.

If a quota place is to be assigned, those points tell the IOC which country likely has some really good athletes. Generally, the IOC awards additional quota place to such countries.

But notice, if that were the only criterion, if only one competitor were to show up at one of these events, that one competitor would win and get all the points no matter how good or poor he/she was.

The IOC wants good athletes at the Olympics, not bad ones.

So, the IOC also requires an MQS — a Minimum Qualifying Score — by the individual athlete to qualify to even compete for the quota places in the first place.

While it is true that, if you wish, you could participate in one of these competitions without the MQS, the fact is that if you don’t have the required MQS by the point in time when they say “You must have achieved a score of X by this time”, then you’re not really competing on behalf of your country for a quota place.

You would then be competing solely for the experience of competing at that level but it would do your country no good. Your standing would be ignored when it came time to award a quota place.

But let’s assume you have achieved the MQS and you’ve gone to one of these earlier events and you win.

Does that mean you can use that quota place?


While winning one these events may get your country one or more quota places, that doesn’t guarantee that the winning athletes will go to the Olympics. What they’ve won is a quota place for their country. It’s still up to that nation’s Olympic committee — that’s a NOC or National Olympic Committee, one for each country — to decide who they will send for each of their quota places.

Now it certainly makes sense for a country to send its best athletes but maybe something happens and an athlete can’t go. Or the athlete is suddenly found to be ineligible. So each country says, “We’ll decide who we will send.”

To summarize then, not all countries participate in the Olympics because not all countries have athletes of world-class caliber and because hosting the event becomes unmanageable if the number of athletes competing isn’t known far enough ahead in time. Stadiums have to be built, housing constructed and, in the case of the London Olympics, the British government had to pass a special bill allowing competitors in the shooting events to bring their firearms into the country. All these things take time.

Second, countries are awarded “quota places” depending on how their athletes perform in international competition in the 24 months prior to the Olympics.

And third, countries then may select athletes based on their demonstrated skills at those same competitions.

The 2012 Summer Olympic Games are in London England from July 27 through August 12 at which there will be a total of 300 events.

So far, I haven’t seen anything that says which events the major networks will, or won’t, cover. Television shows such as Top Gun have demonstrated viewer interest in these sports so the hope is we’ll get some coverage on shooting events in the London Olympics.

Regardless, I’m sure it will still be exciting!

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