First off, there isn’t really a way to properly simplify it. It is possibly one of the most complicated qualification processes of all the Olympic Games sports.
There are a few things that I should point out before I begin, which go a little way to explain why the process is so complicated. Number 1 reason is that there are only 55 places up for grabs on the Olympic start line. This is less than World Champs Grand Final (70), and World Triathlon Series (65), so this already makes it harder to make the line. Another point is that there a MAXIMUM of 3 places per nation, unlike WTS where there are up to 6 (plus 1 for a host nation). This makes it very tough for the bigger nations that have many top athletes, who may miss out even though they are amongst the best in the world. This is why top countries have to make their own selection polices so tough – take a look at the British Triathlon one here as an example!
These factors lead to the Olympic triathlon start line being one of the most elite and difficult to attain in the Games. There are not really any complete ‘wild cards’ in triathlon as in other events like swimming, which made Eric “The Eel” Moussambani famous at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games when he raced the 100m freestyle in a time of 1.52.72! A video of the race can be seen here. This throws up the question of whether the Olympics should be more selective in other events too, but that is another argument. For the triathlon this stops countries just throwing athletes in just because they have an allocated slot, and keeps the field relatively honest. Countries have to fight to win the slots to even be able to choose someone to then go on and race in that spot.
So onto trying to simplifying this thing…! First you need to know that the majority of the Olympic slots for each country are not based on times, they are based on various rankings. These are the “World Triathlon Series Ranking”, the “ITU Points List” (Effectively the ‘World Ranking’) and the “Olympic Qualification List”. The very minimum criteria for anyone wanting to compete in the Olympic triathlon is to be in the top-140 in one of these rankings – this is almost the ‘quality control’ aspect of the criteria so that the field consists of athletes who have shown an ‘elite’ standard of performance.
5 places are then allocated to countries of the winners of the 5 continental qualification event champions. These are now set out (and some already done) as: the European Games (won by a GB athlete), the Pan-American Games (won by a Mexican athlete), Oceania Champs (19-20 March 2016), African Champs (20 March 2016) and finally Asian Champs, which is mine that will be on the 29th April 2016. So for example in my case, if I were to win the Asian Championships next year then I will qualify a spot for Jordan. And then it is down to my Olympic Committee to accept the spot and then HOPEFULLY grant it to me!
The next 3 places are then chosen from the top 3 finishers at the “ITU World Olympic Qualification Event”, which in the case this year was the Rio Test Event on 2nd August. The top three men were from Spain, France and South Africa. So these three nations now have one place each on the line.
At this point you might be wondering why I am not using the names of the athletes winning these places. That is because, technically it doesn’t really matter who wins the places as they are then allocated to the respective National Olympic Committee, who then can decide one who goes with their own internal qualification criteria, like in the case of GB, which I have already shown.
After that there are 39 places allocated to the highest ranked athletes on the Olympic Qualification List, which is the most important ranking in the process, as the majority of places will come from this list. Points for this list come exclusively from the Rio Test Event, WTS races, World Cups and Continental Champs only. This makes the list hard to progress in as the points only come from top-level competition. This one is hard to keep track of as the allocations constantly change as people’s ranking change. So until the date of the end of qualification for the 2 years, you cannot 100% predict which countries will be awarded these places.
This also goes for the next 5 places, which are chosen from the ITU points list. These used to be called “New Flag” places but this was a bad representation of the place as it made people thing that it was a spot granted to countries who had not previously competed in the Olympics, but this is not the case. These are the last places allocated by the athletes’ performances and even though are a little easier than the Olympic Qualification (OQ) places, they can be just as difficult to predict as only one person from each continent can win them. And these are only allocated to countries who do not have any athletes who have a place for the OQ list. In the case of Europe, this place is extremely hard to win as the standard there is so incredibly high. This is the place that I will be aiming for. I was originally aiming to qualify myself a place via the OQ List but due to the list of unfortunate calamities I experienced this season, I ended up too far behind on points so I have had to change my plan and work more on my ITU Points List ranking.
One place is granted to host nation, which will obviously be Brazil. If they qualify via one of the other methods however then the spot will be reallocated to the next best athlete on the OQ List. This is to make sure that the host nation has representation in their own event.
The last two places on the line are then allocated by an IOC committee. These are called “Triapartite Commission Invitation Places” and are chosen completely at the discretion of the committee. These are what you might call ‘wild card’ places but in triathlon athletes still must be of a certain standard to be chosen. Should the committee believe that there is no-one befitting of these places then the places will be reallocated, again, to the OQ list athletes.
So that’s it! It is probably still clear as mud to most but I have been pouring over this document for many years (during the London 2012 cycle too) and have come to understand it quite well. What it does do though is make the racing in the last 2 years before the Games very exciting. People have won and lost places on the very last day of qualifying in the past. With such a big reward to making it, it tends to throw up some amazing stories.
So next time you watch a WTS race on the TV in the run up to the end of qualifying in the next 6 months, try to think past the podium and about the guys finishing in places 4th-40th who may have just won themselves a spot on the Olympic start line. One of them might be me...!