10 May 2024

The almost Olympians: How the NZOC’s selection criteria scuppered Olympic dreams

11:53 am on 10 May 2024
New Zealand’s Abhinav Manota in action.
Barfoot and Thompson Badminton New Zealand Open, Mens Doubles, Auckland, New Zealand. 1 May 2019. © Copyright Image: Marc Shannon / www.photosport.nz.

Abhinav Manota has walked away from his sport after being denied a spot at the Olympics Photo: Marc Shannon

Since a disastrous Olympic Games in 2000, New Zealand has set tough selection standards for its athletes. Is it helping, or harming our medal prospects?

The congratulatory messages flooded in, each one dealing its own small blow.

It should have been a moment of celebration for Abhinav Manota, New Zealand's top men's badminton exponent. His name had featured on a list released by the sport's world governing body of athletes that had qualified for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Friends, family and fellow members of the international badminton community rushed to celebrate his achievement.

But for Manota, known to his friends as Mani, there was no sense of actualisation. Only a feeling of limbo.

While Manota had met the criteria set by the international federation, and been nominated by Badminton New Zealand to attend, his place in the draw of the men's singles in Tokyo was not yet secure.

"My friends and family came out celebrating, I received a lot of Facebook messages. But I had to shut it down pretty fast," says Manota.

"It was an awkward space to be in. I think a lot of people just assumed I would be going to the Olympics because I had qualified. It was pretty difficult to explain that it wasn't as straightforward as that."

Manota would remain in that awkward space, floundering on a ledge just below the summit: an Olympic qualifier, but not an Olympian.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) has the final say on the make-up of the New Zealand team for the Olympics. It determined Manota had not met its additional selection criteria, which states that in order to be selected, athletes must demonstrate they are capable of achieving a top 16 placing, with the potential to win an Olympic Diploma (awarded to those who finish in the top eight).

Manota wasn't the only athlete left out of the team for Tokyo because of this rule.

At the same time Manota was quietly appealing his non-selection through the Sports Tribunal, the NZOC was called on to defend its lofty criteria after track stars Zoe Hobbs and Eddie Osei-Nketia - considered the most exciting local sprinters in a generation - controversially didn't make the cut.

Zoe Hobbs of New Zealand at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games

Zoe Hobbs was one of two sprinters controversially not selected for the Tokyo Olympics Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The pair both qualified for the Olympics by virtue of their world ranking, though the NZOC point out it was not its call to omit them as neither athlete was nominated by Athletics NZ.

Nevertheless, it is a policy that has - directly or indirectly - scuppered the Olympic dreams of dozens of summer and winter athletes since it was introduced over two decades ago. It is expected there will be further casualties of the criteria for the Paris Olympics.

Now, with the NZOC selectors deep into the selection process for this year's Games, there are growing calls for a wide-ranging review of the criteria and its broader impact on the system.

Critics of the policy argue the NZOC's approach is "fundamentally flawed" and reinforced by "questionable evidence". They say a blanket top 16 standard makes little sense when the size of the fields and global competitiveness vary wildly from sport to sport.

Others have questioned the impact that denying sportspeople potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunities has on athlete welfare. One athlete representative claims the criteria "has done more harm to individual well-being in the high performance sports sector than any other single factor".

The NZOC is unapologetic about setting a high bar. The Olympic Games represents the pinnacle of athletic achievement, and therefore the criteria must reflect that. The strategy has borne results too, it says, pointing to New Zealand's increasing team size and medal haul over successive cycles.

The origin story: Sydney 2000

Olympic Flame, 2000 Summer Olympic Games. Sydney, Australia.

2000 Summer Olympic Games. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

To understand the design of New Zealand's high performance system, all roads lead back to the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

The Sydney campaign was the nadir of New Zealand's summer Olympic involvement, after the team of 151 athletes returned with four medals - only one of them gold.

The meagre tally was the lowest haul since 1976 (three), but that team in Montreal had only 80 athletes and picked up two golds.

Worse still, the team had been upstaged in our own "backyard". It was the prime time Olympics in which we bombed.

What we lacked in medals, we made up for in hand wringing. Sports leaders came under huge public pressure to account for the poor showing. Questions were asked about the effectiveness of New Zealand's high performance strategy.

The backlash prompted an overhaul of the system. Sport NZ (then known as Sparc) moved from block funding to a targeted investment model. Sports that had a strong track record of success and could demonstrate they had the talent to deliver in the future were prioritised.

The NZOC, meanwhile, did some tinkering of its own. The board introduced an overarching selection criteria that imposed an additional performance standard on athletes.

NZOC secretary general Nicki Nicol says the Sydney Olympics forced a cultural reset across the organisation.

"There was a lot of negative public sentiment on the performance of the team, and one of our values is to inspire pride and excellence among New Zealanders," says Nicol, who took on the top job at the Olympic Committee in March 2022.

"So having people go to the Games and be competitive - that doesn't necessarily mean podiums - that's really important.

"It was about how as an organisation do we provide a means to have, by and large, all the athletes with the same experiences, skills, capability and resources around them so that when they come into the Games, which is very confronting, they are going to be able to thrive."

Nicol says the NZOC landed on the top 16 benchmark as a proxy for advancing through the first round of competition. Given the team spans a wide variety of sports, it is important that there is an "even standard" across the board.

"I think what is really important for me is that we have a consistent methodology and framework and that gives confidence to the whole sector that we are being consistent around this methodology."

An uneven playing field?

If consistency is the goal, then the top 16 rule is not achieving its purpose, according to international sports law expert Aaron Lloyd.

Lloyd, a partner at Minter Ellison, has represented several athletes in Olympic nomination and selection appeals before the Sports Tribunal, and has seen first-hand the "disparities" the NZOC's approach creates.

In 2016, following a particularly divisive sailing dispute, Lloyd wrote an industry paper about the Olympic nomination and selection process. He concluded the top 16 criteria required "careful review".

Eight years on, Lloyd is less measured.

"I think it's a horrible rule," he says.

"Applying one hard and fast selection standard for all sports assumes it's a level playing field to begin with. But the reality is, there are some sports where being in the top 16 in the world is a lot easier than others.

"If you take athletics and sprinting is the classic example, I think if a New Zealander made it past the initial knock-out stages in a sprinting event, we'd all agree that's a remarkable achievement."

Lloyd singles out two cases he has been involved with that he says demonstrates the disparities in the system.

Natalia Kosinska, The New Zealand sailing team members are announced for 2014. Orams Captains Lounge, Auckland. 18 December 2013.

Sailer Natalia Kosinska missed selection for the 2016 Olympics, despite finishing within the top 16 in her sport's world champs. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

In 2016, he represented sailors Sara Winther and Natalia Kosinska in their appeal against their non-nomination. Both athletes qualified New Zealand a spot in their respective classes. Winther finished 11th in the world at the previous world championships, and Kosinska 16th.

However, Yachting NZ places an even tougher nomination standard on its athletes. Sailors need to be in the top 10 and demonstrate they are capable of bringing home a medal.

That same year, Lloyd represented a fencer, who despite the support of her national body, was denied selection by the NZOC as she fell short of the top 16 standard.

"If a sport has the ability to make the nomination criteria even tougher because that's what suits them, why can't a sport set a nomination criteria that is more relaxed? Why is there only flexibility one way?" says Lloyd.

"There are some sports where the reality is the presence of having someone at the Olympics would make a massive difference for that sport."

In both cases, the effect on the athletes was the same: they were left devastated at being denied an opportunity they'd earned "in their own right".

As the high performance system undergoes a subtle shift from a system-empowered to an athlete-empowered model, Lloyd questions whether the NZOC's selection policy is outdated.

"In a day and age where we have a much better understanding of athlete welfare than we did 10 years ago, has any thought been given to whether or not a sole focus on the winning of medals as opposed to a broader focus around Olympic participation is healthy?"

The haunting

Zoe Hobbs is set for her Olympic debut as she becomes the first Kiwi to be selected in the women’s 100m at an Olympic Games since 1976.

At an event announcing track and field athletes chosen for the Paris Olympics, reporters were asked not to put questions to sprinter Zoe Hobbs about her non-selection in 2021. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Zoe Hobbs remained silent up until a point.

Weeks out from the start of the Tokyo Games, the star sprinter used social media to express her sadness and disappointment at missing out on the Games.

In a measured and articulate post, Hobbs described the hurt of qualifying for the Olympics only to be denied the opportunity by her country's overriding selection standard.

"Not only does a non-selection inhibit the opportunity for experience and exposure to international competition, it also detriments the opportunities that lie thereafter the games," she wrote.

Hobbs finished her post: "Not many people will understand the kind of grief this can bring."

The following day Eddie Osei-Nketia also spoke out, describing his frustration at seeing athletes ranked below him being selected to go by other national Olympic committees.

The omission of the pair thrust the NZOC's selection standards into the spotlight. One athlete representative told RNZ it was hoped the depth of feeling among the public at the time would prompt a rethink of the top 16 rule, but "then the Olympics happened and everyone moved on and focused on the winners".

This time around, there could be no question of Hobbs' inclusion in the Olympic team.

Since mid-2021 Hobbs has lowered her New Zealand record in the 100m eight times and last year became the first woman in Oceania to break through the 11 second barrier, putting her in the elite echelon of female sprinters.

Hobbs was the headline act at last month's announcement of a 15-strong track and field team for Paris, but media were asked not to pose her any questions about missing out on the Tokyo squad.

To many, Hobbs is an example of the system working - she rebounded from the disappointment and excelled, proving the performance standards are attainable, even in the most competitive of disciplines.

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Sprinter Eddie Osei-Nketia quit the sport after the heartbreak of missing selection for the last Olympics. Photo: Alisha Lovrich

But for every Hobbs there is an Osei-Nketia. The sprint sensation, who New Zealand won an allegiance tug of war with Australia over, walked away from the sport last year at just 21.

Osei-Nketia, who subsequently also wasn't nominated for the 2022 Commonwealth Games as the NZOC imposes an even tougher "top six" selection standard for the event, opted to take up a college football scholarship in Hawaii.

Before he stepped away, Osei-Nketia broke a 28-year-old New Zealand record in the men's 100m previously held by his father, Gus Nketia.

Following his final track competition in March last year, Osei-Nketia said he was "heartbroken" and "haunted" at having failed to achieve his Olympic ambitions.

"To this day it haunts me, man," he told Stuff.

"It's insane how fast I am running right now, and it's also very heartbreaking. I could have been so much better, but unfortunately no one will know the true potential of myself."

Abhinav Manota has also stepped away from competing on the international badminton circuit after his non-selection for Tokyo.

Manota, with the support of Badminton NZ, appealed the NZOC's decision through the Sports Tribunal - an independent arbitration body that rules on sports disputes.

The Sports Tribunal does not provide an avenue for athletes to challenge the selection criteria itself, only the application of it. The panel unanimously ruled in favour of the NZOC, finding Abhinav had not adequately demonstrated he had met the top 16 criteria.

Abhinav tried to prepare himself for that outcome. But when the ruling came and his last hope was extinguished, it hit him hard.

He says he thought about continuing on and pushing for a place in the Commonwealth Games team in 2022, but struggled to find the motivation to keep slogging away on the international circuit.

"I didn't have it in my heart to keep going after that," says Manota, who is now based in Australia.

New Zealand’s Abhinav Manota celebrates.
Barfoot and Thompson Badminton New Zealand Open, Mens Doubles, Auckland, New Zealand. 1 May 2019. © Copyright Image: Marc Shannon / www.photosport.nz.

Manota in action at the 2019 national competition Photo: Marc Shannon

It is an emotional topic for many in the sport.

Former national badminton coach TJ Weistra, who was involved in the New Zealand system for more than a decade before heading across the Tasman in 2018, says he has seen first-hand the impact it has on athletes.

"If you can imagine competing in a highly competitive sport globally, you don't receive any support or investment from anywhere. You fund everything entirely on your own. Despite all these things being stacked against you, you manage to qualify for the Olympics based on your international federation's rules," says Weistra, a former Netherlands international.

"There's only 32 men that qualify worldwide in men's singles. That is a major achievement. Then the NZOC say: 'Nah, sorry you're not good enough'.

"I can't describe how damaging that must be to a person's morale. That hurts. That's stuff you don't get over."

Gold at what cost?

Nicol acknowledges the selection process can be a highly stressful and uncertain time for athletes. That is why it is important, she says, to have a clear, consistent and transparent process in place to give athletes confidence.

She also contends athlete welfare is front of mind when setting the criteria.

"We don't want situations where athletes or teams are taking the field and be out within minutes, or even seconds - that's not good for anyone. We want them to progress forward in the competition," says Nicol.

"It is a threshold that we want athletes to aspire to, but also it is about making sure they can prepare themselves. Because actually, when they get to the Olympics, it is a really challenging environment."

Nicol believes the numbers speak for themselves. Since implementing the policy, the team size and medal count has grown each Games, indicating sports and athletes have responded to the challenge.

The New Zealand team returned from Tokyo with a record haul of 20 medals, up from 18 in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, won across 11 sports.

"Looking at the recent success of the teams, we've got team size growing, and our medal counts are growing. So actually the standard of performance has been enhanced over that time," says Nicol.

"Certainly that has been all the other inputs that have been happening in the sector and all the things HPSNZ and the [national sports organisations] have undertaken. But by having the bar there, we have seen consistently more and more people rise above it."

But Wiestra, who now heads up Badminton Australia, questions this logic.

"That is a flawed argument. You only have to look at Australia to know that is completely incorrect.

"The Australian Olympic Committee does not put any additional criteria on top of the international federation rules, and yet their performance on the international stage is exceptional."

Weistra says the NZOC argument that the top 16 criteria drives better performance undermines the internal motivation of athletes who are "driven to be the absolute best they can be regardless".

"Where [the NZOC] say their policies drive better performance, actually what I have seen is the exact opposite happens in many, many sports. It actually drives despair. Athletes get sick of battling the system and they give up. They find other dreams."

While Nichol acknowledges the role High Performance Sport NZ has played in improving the performance of Kiwi athletes on the Olympic stage, others say it is the sole reason for New Zealand's success.

Following the disaster in 2000, New Zealand unashamedly entered a sporting arms race. Funding for high performance sport has increased from $10 million in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics to around 25 times that for the extended five-year Tokyo cycle.

"The claim that somehow the NZOC is responsible for increasing medal counts because of its top 16 policy is an absolute fantasy," says one leading sports administrator.

"You have to look at what else has gone on over that same period. The reality is [HPSNZ] has invested more than half a billion dollars in the system over the past 20 years. That's the driver here - a shit tonne of money."

'Killing off the sport'

The NZOC's selection criteria is not just a barrier to individual ambitions, sports leaders say it is also a hindrance to growth opportunities for some smaller sports.

As one sports leader told RNZ: "It is by far and away the single most frustrating piece of policy I have encountered in all my years in sports administration."

The official, who asked not to be identified as they do not want to be seen to be "politicising the issue" in the midst of selection discussions, believes the NZOC's approach is at odds with the ethos of the Olympic Charter and the organisation's own Statement of Purpose. Among the stated goals of the NZOC are to "enable our athletes to achieve on the world's stage" and "advocate for the priorities of [national sports organisations]".

"I fail to see how actively excluding athletes that have qualified for the Olympic Games fits with these Olympic ideals."

Wiestra worries about the impact denying athletes opportunities has had on the "morale" of the New Zealand badminton community.

This year will likely be the fourth successive Games where New Zealand has not had a badminton representative at the Olympics. The last was John Moody in Beijing.

"It is killing off the sport in New Zealand. Pure and simple," he says.

"I can't see New Zealand having [badminton] athletes at the Commonwealth Games in 2026 - if it goes ahead. It will be the first time ever."

Weistra adds these concerns have been formally voiced to the NZOC for a number of years. RNZ has obtained a letter written in 2016 by former Badminton NZ chief executive Joe Hitchcock to then NZOC secretary general Kereyn Smith, which outlined a multitude of concerns about the fairness of the policy.

"We are losing a generation of young people that don't have the opportunity to be inspired by badminton athletes wearing the silver fern at the Olympic Games," the letter read.


Fencing competitors at the Tokyo Olympics Photo: photosport

Other sports like fencing and judo also made attempts to shift the dial.

Fencing NZ took an almost apologetic tone when it released its nomination criteria last year. It pointed to the NZOC's overarching policy, and noted the national body has "not been able to influence this mandatory requirement of all NZ sports".

Nicol says the NZOC conducts reviews after each major Games to ensure the organisation has the "right balance" between performance and legacy objectives.

She says the feedback following the last Olympics overwhelmingly supported the status quo.

"If we take the process after Tokyo for example, the board saw the feedback. There were different views shared, some this way, some the other way, but by and large the clear majority still is yes, there needs to be a standard, and yes that standard should be top 16."

The post-Tokyo review did result in some changes to the criteria. The NZOC this year introduced a "future performer exemption", which gives the opportunity for athletes that do not meet the top 16 criteria for Paris but are expected to be top eight contenders come the Los Angeles Olympics in four years time, an opportunity to be considered for selection.

Lloyd says rather than a survey of its membership, there should be a more wide-ranging review after this year's Games.

"The policy has been in place for over 20 years now, it seems like about the right time to have a full review of the criteria and really look at the impact it has had on the sector. I think there's a lot of evidence out there to say it hasn't all been positive."