Background Of The Ireland vs. Guam Decision

Background Of The Ireland vs. Guam Decision

The swimming community throughout Guam was ecstatic last week to hear that Benjamin Schulte, the 16-year-old swimmer from Guam, was invited to the Olympics by FINA.

As the first swimmer from Guam to qualify for an Olympic swimming final in recent times, Schulte was justifiably proud and beyond joyous. On the other hand, the news hit Chris Bryan and his supporters hard. Very hard.

Irish supporters raised questions as to why Schulte, who finished 52nd in 2:00:56.4 at the FINA Olympic Marathon Swimming Qualifier, would be invited over Bryan who finished 15th in 1:46:30.7?

Why was this decision made? Why were questions raised about the qualification process?

The reasons are based on a FINA qualification process that, in part, places on emphasis on qualifying swimmers from all five continents. While there were many candidates from Europe and the Americas, there were fewer from Asia and Africa. But there were only two possible representatives from Oceania at the final FINA Qualification race: Kane Radford of New Zealand and Schulte of Guam. As a result, one of these two men had an opportunity to represent their country at the Olympics.

Radford finished uncharacteristically far down the final standings: 27th place in 1:47:02.7. While he had qualified on paper based on the pre-determined FINA process, it was the policy of Swimming New Zealand to only allow their athletes to accept an invitation to the Olympics if they finished in the top 9 at the FINA Qualifier. As a result, Radford understood the ramifications of his 27th-place finish and Swimming New Zealand declined the invitation.

This decision by Swimming New Zealand set into motion a decision process that FINA had not anticipated. As a result, both Schulte and Bryan and their coaches and supporters felt they both had a chance to go to the Olympics.

Excitement reigned for both the 15th place finisher and the 52nd place finisher. The possibility of going to the Olympics was palpable…but they both had to wait for the FINA ruling.

The FINA qualification process dictated that 25 male athletes would be invited to London. The first 10 places were filled by the top 10 swimmers at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai. The 9 best ranked athletes in Portugal at the 2012 FINA Olympic Marathon Swimming Qualifier would similarly reserve their spot at the Olympics. One spot was reserved for Great Britain as the host nation, bringing the total number of qualified athletes to 20. The remaining 5 places would be filled by 5 Continental Representatives to reach a grand total of 25 athletes.

FINA’s rules describe the process as follows:

Section D: Continental Representation (10 Marathon Swimmers, 5 Men & 5 Women): The best ranked athlete in the FINA Olympic Marathon Swim Qualifier 2012, not yet qualified, from each of five (5) Continents will obtain a quota place. Should an National Olympic Committee / National Federation have previously qualified one (1) or two (2) swimmers, the quota place will be allocated to the next best ranked athlete, not yet qualified, in the ranking of the FINA Olympic Marathon Swim Qualifier 2012 event to ensure that each of these competitions yields a competitor.

Based on this Section D, FINA determined that Schulte should be allocated the quota place in light of Swimming New Zealand’s decline of its invitation. However, supporters of Bryan were confused and upset, claiming a controversy due to a subsequent clause in the FINA process:

Section F: Reallocation of unused quote places: The unused IF quota place(s) will be reallocated to the next best ranked athlete from the 2012 FINA Olympic Marathon Swim Qualifier, not yet qualified.

The Irish supporters thought that Bryan should be invited because he was the next best ranked athlete according to Section F. Their argument was based on the words, “the next best ranked athlete…not yet qualified“. A supporter summed up the argument, “Radford was the beneficiary of one of the original 14 quota places from the qualifying race. Section D does not specifically state that the “2nd next best ranked” swimmer from the [Oceania] continent will receive the quota place if it is not accepted by the first Continental Representative. This is clear and unambiguous. That is, there is no room for interpretation because the rule does not specify that the same initial allocation of the quota place will go to the “next best ranked” athlete if the first Continental Representative declines.”

Supporters of this perspective point out that Schulte would have been the “next best ranked” athlete had Radford qualified in the top 9. “Then Schulte would rightly receive this Continental quota place. But after the initial allocation of the quota place as defined by that clause in the rules, then the process moves to the Section F, [described as] “Reallocation of unused quota places”. This is the term for the declined place, in this instance, by Swimming New Zealand. Section F is clear also that all unused quota places then transfer to the next best ranked athlete from Portugal.”

But FINA made its ruling based on Section D, although no public comment was issued by FINA. Based on Section D, since Swimming New Zealand declined its invitation, the invitation was then issued to the next best ranked athlete in the Oceania continent. It appears that Section F, in FINA’s determination, was not a pertinent issue.

In summary, FINA determined a different outcome than what was desired by Irish supporters of Bryan … and to the delight of a young man half a world away.

Both young men, Bryan in Ireland or Schulte in Guam, represent the ideals of the Olympic movement. They both elevate the sport in their own quiet, humble ways. They both have trained hard and sacrificed much to put themselves in the position to be competitive.

In a zero sum game as is seen in this situation, one man benefits from a decision … and the other does not. As much as the dreams of Bryan are dashed on one side of the world, the dreams of Schulte are realized on the other side of the world. Both young men deserve the accolades that come their way and their futures remain bright. We expect to hear more from these athletes for they are both winners in the game of life.

Photo by Dr. Jim Miller.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source
Steven Munatones