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How Will The Final U.S. Olympic Spots Be Decided?

With Jorgensen and Groff qualifying, there’s one Olympic spot left for the women and at most three spots left for the men. So how exactly will the other spots be filled?

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Gwen Jorgensen and Sarah Groff became the first two American Olympic qualifiers in triathlon this past weekend by finishing second and seventh, respectively, at the ITU’s Dextro Energy World Championship Series race in London.

Laura Bennett and Sarah Haskins, both favorites to make the Olympic team, are left to battle it out for one spot. Photo: Paul Phillips

With Jorgensen and Groff qualifying, there’s one Olympic spot left for the women and at most three spots left for the men. So how exactly will the other spots be filled?

Jorgensen and Groff qualified under USA Triathlon’s revamped Olympic qualification system—one set to ensure that whoever qualifies is either a legitimate medal contender, or someone who can help a medal contender earn gold, silver or bronze.

To qualify, Jorgensen and Groff had to be the top two Americans in London—and they had to finish in the top nine. That was a big proviso, because finishing in the top nine at a WCS event, especially London, is no easy feat. Almost every country was using London as an Olympic qualifier, meaning literally everyone who was anyone was competing at that race. It was probably more competitive than the Olympics will be, as countries could enter more than three athletes in the race, whereas at the Olympics, countries can at most qualify three athletes. (Think Great Britain, which, during the London men’s race, had Alistair Brownlee, Jonathan Brownlee, Tim Don, Will Clarke and Stuart Hayes all battling it out for Olympics spots.)

As far as the women are concerned, the next race that an athlete can use to qualify for the Olympics is a to-be-determined World Championship Series event in 2012. If an American woman finishes in the top nine—again, a big proviso—then she automatically qualifies for the Olympics.

If no one finishes in the top nine, then USAT has the right to select whoever they want—something that has never happened before in the history of USAT’s Olympic qualification systems.

USAT could decide to choose a domestique—someone who would help ensure that Groff and Jorgensen are in a position to win a medal at the end of the bike, as both Groff and Jorgensen are capable of running their way on to the podium.

But the USAT could also decide to select someone they deem a medal contender in her own right, such as Laura Bennett, who had a disappointing race in London but who placed fourth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and who, prior to London, hadn’t placed outside the top eight at a World Championship Series event this year.

The American men did not fare well in London. Photo: Paul Phillips

As far as the men are concerned, given that no American man placed in the top nine at London, all Olympic slots are up for grabs. Unfortunately, there is still a very real possibility that the American men will only get two Olympic spots in 2012.

Country slots—the number of athletes a country can send to the Olympics—are determined via a complicated ITU points system. As of this writing, the American men only have two Olympic spots, a consequence of disappointing results by some athletes and others not racing enough. They have until early next year to earn back the third spot, but they’ll have to put in some significant work to do so.

When the men race the to-be-determined 2012 Olympic qualification event, a variety of scenarios can unfold. If two men are in the top nine—then those two men automatically qualify—and the third spot, if the men have one, will go to a discretionary selection.

If no one is in the top nine and the American men have three Olympic spots, then the first spot on the team will go to a discretionary selection, and the next two spots will be filled via a roll down selection, with the top two American men at the Trials event qualifying, regardless of their overall places.

If no one is in the top nine and the American men only have two Olympic spots, then the spots will go to a discretionary selection, then the first American, regardless of place.

Bottom line: It’s likely that USA Triathlon will be making a discretionary selection on the men’s side. Now it’s up to them whether or not they will select a medal contender who hasn’t managed to yet automatically qualify, or a domestique. Given that the Brownlees are racing so seamlessly and unstoppably as a team, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could beat them, or get a medal, without team tactics. And medals, after all, are USA Triathlon’s primary motivation.

[sig:CourtneyBaird]