A sport unto itself: Understanding Olympic qualification

Photo of Tokyo Olympic Stadium
Arne Müseler/Creative Commons

It’s common knowledge that qualifying for the Olympics is no small feat. While perhaps not an accomplishment of the same magnitude, understanding how individuals qualify for the Games isn’t easy either.

A post-Olympic trials interview with University of Oregon distance runner Cole Hocker provides a prime example of the confusion caused by the convoluted (but necessary) system of determining which athletes will represent their nations in the Olympics.

Immediately after the 1,500-meter final, a race that he won in electrifying fashion by outkicking the defending Olympic champion, Hocker was asked whether he might consider participating in another meet the following week to cement his place on Team USA.

“I don’t think I will,” Hocker said. “I think my world rank right now is good enough to lock me in, but, yeah, I don’t know.”

What does any of that mean? How could the U.S. Olympic trials champion not make the Olympic team?

With very few exceptions, it is necessary to place in the top three in an event at the Olympic trials to qualify for the Olympics. While this step is essential in most cases, placing within the top three at the trials does not guarantee a trip to sporting’s biggest stage.

To confirm their spot, an individual seeks to achieve the “Olympic standard” at some point in the course of their season. The Olympic standard is a lofty mark for each event, approved by the World Athletics. For example, the Olympic standard for the 1,500-meter this year was 3:35.00.

While Hocker achieved a time of 3:35 and change on more than one occasion, he never managed to run 3:35.00 or faster and thus had to qualify via more circuitous means — namely his position in the 1,500-meter world rankings. More specifically, the World Athletics enables athletes who are ranked high enough in the world rankings to qualify for the Olympics, even if they have not met the Olympic standard. Hocker’s place in the top 45 as a 1,500-meter athlete punched his ticket to Tokyo.

An entire article could be devoted to how world rankings are calculated for various track events and what ranking is high enough to qualify for the Games, but perhaps it offers some clarity to know that for track events, the World Athletics anticipated that about half of the athletes qualifying for Tokyo would do so by eclipsing the standard, while the other half would take the less linear route by climbing the world rankings.

Things are a bit less complicated in the swimming world. Aquatic athletes must meet specified times to qualify for the Olympic trials. At the trials, they can compete in multiple events but only ones for which they’ve met the qualifying threshold. Their performance at the trials dictates whether they move on to the Games.

The methods of qualification for nontrack and nonswim sports vary across the wide scope of events held at the Olympics, but for Cal Athletics and its alumni, golf and rowing are two other sports for which it is important to understand the process.

Golf relies on a rankings system that is almost identical to the official world rankings, which are determined by athletes’ performances in organized tournaments. Members of the rowing team are determined by how they fare in a series of regattas, including the world rowing championships.

When the Summer Olympics come around, we’re reminded that keeping track of the various qualification systems for different events feels like an Olympic sport in and of itself. But with a greater understanding of the qualification process comes a greater appreciation for the sacrifices and accomplishments necessary to make the Games, and thus it’s a sport worth playing.

Ethan Moutes is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].