Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

“We cannot have preferences for specific athletes and federations.”

European Athletics has told heptathletes, who have missed out on qualification and selection for the European Championships in Rome due to the French federation’s administrative mistakes, that they “cannot have preferences for specific athletes and federations” and “we have to stick to the rules.”

But on 31 May European Athletics President, Dobromir Karamarinov confirmed that, at the request of the French Federation, EA have agreed to issue a wildcard to allow France to select Kevin Mayer, who was not otherwise qualified, for the Championships.

The full story about Mayer’s route to Paris, European Championships qualification, rankings, field sizes and the impact of bureaucratic incompetence.

THE FRENCH PROBLEM

A week ahead of the European Championships in Rome, the French have two problems.

The first problem is the administrative melee in which the French Federation has found itself, with athletes across events apparently accidentally left out of selection for Rome. Yesterday FFA tweeted:

“Due to an administrative entry error, the selection planned…of athletes Azeddine Habz and Simon Bedard is not validated by European Athletics at this time. The FF does everything possible to enable their integration into the selection.”

In addition to the two distance athletes, French heptathletes Esther Conde-Turpin and Elisa Pineau have also been caught up in this “administrative error”. Both qualified for the European Championships through world rankings. Their participation was confirmed in the field, but according to European Athletics, the French federation withdrew the heptathletes a day after the deadline for changes.

But the French have a bigger problem. Their poster boy for the Olympic Games, decathlon world record holder Kevin Mayer, is in trouble.

Mayer has not completed a decathlon since 2022. He does not have the qualification standard for the Olympics, or indeed the European championships. He is not ranked within World Athletics’ world ranking system, either for the Olympics or the European championships. His two previous attempts to complete a decathlon, in Australia in December and in San Diego in March, were aborted. Time is running out, and the problem for Mayer is that he has always been clear that his body cannot cope with more than one decathlon per season.

So, for Mayer, there is a paradox.  The closer we get to the Olympics the bigger the risk that even if he qualifies, Mayer will not be able to recover quickly enough to bring a 9000-point decathlon. That will almost certainly be the standard required in a competition between Olympic champion Damian Warner, World Champion Pierce LePage, Leo Neugebauer, Ayden Owens-Delerme, Lindon Victor and Kyle Garland.

In 2020 the French organised a special meeting – which was awarded World Athletics GL status – in Reunion specifically to create an opportunity for Mayer to qualify for the 2021 Olympics.   

In 2024, another special opportunity has emerged for Mayer to qualify for the Olympics, this time at the European Athletics Championships.

Last week L’Equipe, among others, reported that Mayer had been offered an invitation to the European championships. As for any decathlon competition, that would provide an opportunity to secure the automatic Olympic qualification mark of 8460, or collect rankings points to boost a sub 8460 score, which could be combined with his heptathlon mark from the 2023 European Indoors in Istanbul to qualify by rankings.

Yesterday, EA President Dobromir Karamarinov said in an EA news release:

“The French Athletics Federation requested a wild card for Kevin Mayer which the European Athletics Executive Board carefully considered.”

“We recognised that Kevin is a two-time world champion in the decathlon, most recently in 2022, and the current world record-holder. Given his exceptional achievements, there was considerable merit in granting this wild card.

According to Belgium’s Atletiek Nieuws, on 10 May a clause was added to the European Athletics qualification rules for Rome to allow such extra wildcards to be issued. This is different from the “universality place” provision, which already existed to allow small countries with no qualified athletes to participate.

Mayer is now showing on the Road to Rome as qualified, albeit incorrectly via a “universality place”.

There is no question, of course, that an Olympic decathlon in Paris would be better for the sport if it has France’s former top decathlete in the line-up. Mayer is a superstar, and his competitors and his fans will also want him to be there. None of this is about Mayer as an individual – an athlete simply trying to find his own way to Olympic gold, via the European championships.

But European Athletics’ position appears to be inconsistent.

The European Championships decathlon field can be extended to 25 when the French federation ask for a wildcard to include their unqualified decathlete.

But special arrangements apparently cannot be made when the French federation’s laissez faire approach to administration penalises qualified heptathletes, including from other nations.

THE HEPTATHLETES

There are multiple female heptathletes, from multiple countries, penalised as a result of this “administrative error” by the French.

Esther Conde-Turpin and Elisa Pineau of France are the first wave of athletes affected.

Pineau won the world combined events tour heptathlon in Arona on 12 May 2024, which improved her world ranking by over 20 places at the time, from 58th to 35th place. That brought her into qualification for the European Championships, in 21st of the 24 places available.

Conde-Turpin is just a few places behind Pineau in the world rankings, thanks to winning the French championships in 2023 and placing sixth in the world combined events tour heptathlon in Ratingen last year. Those performances qualified her as the 24th athlete in the 24 places available for Rome.

Whether the French federation made an error in withdrawing Pineau and Conde-Turpin after apparently confirming their places, or made a deliberate decision to withdraw them, the two athletes are no longer in the field.

However, according to European Athletics, the timing of the French federation’s actions excludes the next athletes in the rankings from taking up the two free places in the field.

Next in line is Isabel Posch of Austria. Posch won the World University Games in China last year and finished in the top eight in Talence in September. Her performances in 2023 – where she improved her heptathlon score by over 500 points from 5600 to 6100+ – allowed her to climb 50 places in the world rankings.

And then comes Lovisa Karlsson of Sweden. Karlsson finished fourth at the world combined events tour meeting in Multistars in April and won the world combined events tour meeting in Milos in May. Those two performances represented a 200-point improvement by Karlsson and allowed her to increase her rankings position by almost 30 places.

These 24-year-old athletes have improved massively over the last year. They have done what has been asked of them by World and European Athletics, competing regularly to collect rankings points and climb into qualification contention. So, they approached European Athletics to ask that they could be included in the places freed up by the French athletes:

This is what EA told Isabel Posch and Lovisa Karlsson:

“As you know well, the aim of qualification system is to create equal conditions to all Member Federations and athletes. And not to have preferences or exceptions for specific athletes or Federation, undermining the principles of equal treatment and sport principles.
By the deadline of confirming (pre-entering) the athletes on 29 May, we had 24 athletes confirmed their participation in Heptathlon, including 3 French athletes. Just one day after, FRA removed 2 out of 3 athletes from their final entry lists.
But as per the qualifications system, no further changes or replacements are possible after 14:00 29 May once the final version of Road to Rome is published (based on athletes pre-entered by MFs).
To keep the system working and our sport being credible, we have to stick to the rules. So, unfortunately, we cannot accept your request below.
For the system to function all MFs have to respect it. Unfortunately, that was not the case with French Federation this time.”

KNOCK-ON IMPACTS

One of the responses to the apparent special treatment for Mayer is that he is not taking away a place from any other athlete, because the decathlon field has been increased from 24 to 25 to accommodate him.

The move may not take away a place from an athlete in the field for Rome, but it would be misleading to say that it does not affect others.

World Athletics’ qualification relies heavily on rankings, indicating their intention that combined events fields be made up 50% from qualification standard, and 50% by world rankings.

This fundamentally changes the dynamics of the season. There are many well-documented problems with qualification via rankings, but the relevant interaction here is between the European Championships and the Olympic Games.

The European Championships is a GL status meet, which means that there are generous rankings points for the first 12 places. Moreover, rankings points from area championships have a longer life span than points from other meetings, extending until the next edition of the championships, up to three years. All other points expire after 18 months.   

So, the opportunity to compete in the European Championships is not just about a shot at a medal, or a shot at a good score with strong competition. It is also about access to the rankings points that form a material part of the strategy to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games and future global championships.

The additional place for Mayer – or indeed anyone else – may not push anyone out of the field, but it does change the calculation on rankings points. Here’s why that’s important.

The former world-record holder Roman Sebrle is one of many coaches who have expressed frustration about the weighting of the rankings system. The system is causing coaches and athletes to choose between a top 10 place against the best on the planet in Götzis, or a top 3 place against a weaker field to get a better combination of rankings points.

Sebrle has two Czech athletes with almost identical scores who are ranked almost 20 places apart.

  • Ondrej Kopecky has a 6018 heptathlon and an 8074 decathlon and is ranked 50th
  • Vilem Strasky has a 6080 heptathlon and a 7925 decathlon and is ranked 33rd

Strasky is qualified for Rome, Kopecky is not. Strasky actually scored 8016 in Götzis but that achievement gave him no placing points, because he finished in 13th place. So his 7925 scored when winning the World University Games is deemed more valuable than an 8000+ score in Götzis.

The point is that field sizes, and access to rankings, matter and the likes of Sebrle are therefore planning their athletes’ navigation through rankings and categorisation of meets like a military operation.

There are multiple athletes competing in the Rome combined events fields who will be hoping to score well enough, and high enough, to leverage a qualification spot for Paris. The natural attrition rate in combined events, from mid-competition injuries and no-marks, means that those points are within reach for the entire field.

European Athletics’ last-minute scramble to extend special invitations means that if Mayer finishes in the top 12, he will push an athlete who qualified by standard or rankings out of the ranking places. That is not on him, but on a lack of understanding – or interest – on the impact of rankings.  

It is not wrong to go to every effort to include a star in the field. But changing the goal posts two weeks before the qualification closes, when it may have a material impact on other athletes’ ability to qualify for the Olympics, is poor form.

A similar argument applies to Posch and Karlsson. European Athletics’ contradictory position mean that two opportunities are lost for improving young athletes to compete not only in their first major European Championships, but to secure rankings points en route to Paris.

World Athletics have a similar issue, which has been brought to their attention, with their “discretionary” qualification place for the World Indoor Championships. The World Indoor Championships has a limited field of 12, and there are GW rankings points available for all 12 places. Handing a free place to an athlete of World Athletics’ choosing is not just a free shot at gold. It’s a guarantee of rankings points to help with the next qualification. And then the next. And on it goes.

FIELD SIZES

Finally, field sizes. This has been an issue on which hundreds of combined events athletes have been lobbying European Athletics and World Athletics since 2021, including in relation to the interaction with rankings as qualification.

In December 2021, European Athletics President Dobromir Karamarinov and CEO Christian Milz wrote to Swedish decathlete Fredrik Samuelsson. In their letter, they said:

“As a first step, European Athletics will increase the target numbers for all field events and combined events (i.e. Heptathlon & Pentathlon) for the next European Indoor Championships in Istanbul 2023. However, the increase will be gradual to remain within the framework of the current organisational and financial responsibilities.

Once the European Indoor Championships Istanbul 2023 is over, European Athletics will re-evaluate the situation and plan further adjustments, if relevant, for future major Championships in Europe.”

The field size for the outdoor European Championships did not increase in Munich 2022, which was of course just a few months later, but more significantly the field size has not increased for Rome. Except to accommodate Kevin Mayer who, to his credit, is an advocate for increased field sizes.

World Athletics have also committed to increasing the field sizes for their championships, after Samuelsson was invited by the Athletes Commission to give evidence to their Competition Commission.  However, World Athletics’ slow pace in following through with that commitment is a claim that they “cannot fill fields” and “no-one wants to participate.”

That is not true, and now we have examples to demonstrate it is not the case. In Glasgow, athletes who wanted to compete were thwarted by the choreography between the governing body and federations, including the uncertainty as to how may places would be available to athletes competing during the indoor season. That resulted in the heptathlon field being one short, and others who were qualified being skipped over.

Now, just a week ahead of Rome, there is evidence that fields remain unfilled not because athletes don’t want to compete, but because the bureaucracy between governing bodies and Federations is uncoordinated and chaotic.

Athletes want to compete in championships.

Esther Conde-Turpin and Elisa Pineau are qualified and want to compete.

Lovisa Karlsson and Isabel Posch would have been qualified and wanted to compete, if Conde-Turpin and Pineau were not selected.

The French heptathletes want their Swedish and Austrian competitors to compete and to spare them from the impact of their own federation’s incompetence.

But alas, it appears that European Athletics are only willing to adjust rules when it relates to giving a famous name a personalised opportunity to qualify for the Olympics. To be clear, this is not Mayer’s fault, and of course it will be a treat to watch him compete against Europe’s best. Makenson Gletty and Teo Bastien have both qualified and been selected for France in the decathlon, and Auriana Lazraq-Khlass likewise in the heptathlon. The French contingent is strong.

But what a pity European Athletics are not able to make special exceptions for those young athletes whose opportunity to compete at their first European Championships, and to pursue their own Olympic dreams, has been dashed by the ineptitude of the very Federation that has benefited from European Athletics’ special exceptions.

European Athletics were asked for comment but did not respond.

Editor’s note: Forty-eight hours later, Karlsson and Posch were reinstated.

Photo: (Lovisa) Bjorn Paree