The lowdown on what effect the Grand Final could have on the 2016 Rio Olympic team.

The lowdown on what effect the Grand Final could have on the 2016 Rio Olympic team.

The Olympics qualification process is not an easy one to understand, and unless you’ve spent time combing through the USA Triathlon selection procedures, you may be wondering if and how the elite races on Friday (women) and Saturday (men) could affect the Rio team for 2016.

To answer some of our questions, we talked to USAT’s High Performance General Manager Andy Schmitz, who shared some insight on what it will take to fill the rest of the Olympic team spots.

Step one: Rio test event

The first opportunity to earn an Olympic team spot was at the Rio test event in August, where two automatic qualifiers were available for athletes who made it on the podium. Those were earned by the ITU’s No. 1 and No. 3 ranked women Gwen Jorgensen and Sarah True on the women’s side, but no men placed high enough to earn a spot.

RELATED PHOTOS – ITU Rio Olympics Test Event: The Men

Step two: TBD 2016 event or Chicago

Women
With two spots taken, the women have one more to fill. Unfortunately, that woman will have to wait until 2016 to earn her spot. Chicago doesn’t mean an automatic qualifier for the women because the first and only two automatic spots for 2015 were taken in Rio. The next opportunity to earn a spot will be at a TBD event in 2016, where, if an athlete not named Jorgensen or True finishes in the top three, she will go to Rio.

Men
With no qualifiers in Rio, the Chicago race serves as an automatic qualifier for one American man if he places in the top 8 overall. Considering the incredibly talented field in Chicago and recent results from the American men, a top-8 is a tall order, but let’s not forget that in 2012, the two men’s spots for London were decided by a two outstanding top-9 (the past standard) performances in San Diego by Hunter Kemper and Manual Huerta. As of now, there are six American men on the start line: Kevin McDowell, Ben Kanute, Jarrod Shoemaker, Gregory Billington [update to story as of Friday morning: Due to a stress fracture, Billington is no longer racing], Joe Maloy and Hunter Kemper. If none of those men get a top-8 finish, their next opportunity will also be at the TBD 2016 event.

Where will the 2016 race be?
When determining the auto-qualifying 2016 race, Schmitz says they will look at multiple factors—quality of the field, nature of the course (to get something similar to Rio), and the environmental conditions.

“Most of my peers were pointing toward Auckland being the right kind of a course: world-class quality of field, a course that’s kind of tough and hilly, potentially environmental conditions,” he says. But because Auckland is no longer going to be a World Triathlon Series event, USAT is scrambling to decide what’s best, and they first have to wait for the ITU to announce their 2016 calendar (likely to happen in the next month).

“Our preference would be to pick WTS event for the field,” Schmitz says. “If we assume it’s a World Series event, any athlete on the podium qualifies automatically, with no roll down.” If they wind up choosing a World Cup-level event, the athlete would have to win in order to automatically qualify.

RELATED PHOTOS – ITU Rio Olympics Test Event: The Women

Step three: Domestique

If no athlete makes it in the top three at the 2016 event, USAT has the ability to look at discretion and consider someone to play a team (or domestique) role. Schmitz could potentially nominate someone and have it go to a selection committee to approve it. If he chooses not to select someone or the nomination gets rejected, it goes to step four below. The domestique role is in place if USAT thinks they have a medal contender on their hands and want to support that person as much as possible. This could be more relevant in different years, but the top women are all medal contenders and the men don’t have a proven potential medalist as of now.

Step four: Objective rankings

USAT designed an objective ranking system using five races—the Rio test event (counts as 100 percent), Chicago and the future 2016 event (80 percent of Rio’s points), Stockholm (70 percent) and Edmonton (50 percent).

As of today, before Chicago, Katie Zafares is the leader in terms of points (around 1560) for the women. The next closest woman is Kirsten Kasper (645 points), followed by Erin Jones (400) and Lindsey Jerdonek (219). That could all shift after today’s race, Schmitz says.

“Katie is the clear-cut leader in the objective rankings, and Chicago will add to that,” Schmitz says. “If the gap isn’t narrowed at all, it could put us in a position where we could see mathematically, if someone came in fourth in the spring, would it be enough points to overtake Katie? A lot has to do with what happens in Chicago—Katie could improve her points, someone could narrow the gap, so we’ll have a much clearer picture come Chicago as to where we stand.”

The men are much closer in points, with Billington, Maloy, Eric Lagerstrom, Tommy Zafares (both not racing Chicago), McDowell, Kemper and Kanute all in the 50–600 range. There’s a strong chance, based on current points compared to other countries, that the American men will also get three spots, the max available for the team.

What will likely happen:

Women
If someone gets a podium spot ahead of Katie Zafares in the TBD 2016 race, that person will automatically go to the Olympics. If not, Zafares will likely be the pick if it goes to the objective points-based system.

Men
So far, it’s wide open. Someone could have an amazing performance on Saturday or at the automatic qualifier in 2016, but it will probably get to the objective ranking stage and USAT will take the three best athletes.

How the U.S. system compares to others

For comparison’s sake, to get on the British team you have to be in the top three in Rio and in Chicago, which is a tall but intentional order to construct the team they want.

Schmitz says USAT looks at best practices across other federations, but he thinks even successful sports have difficulty with selection policies. “Our policy is challenging, firm and fair, and motivates the athletes to perform,” he says. “I want there to be the ability to make some subjective decisions based on a strong degree of objective input. At the end of the day, I think our policy provides a strong degree of clarity and understanding of what we expect of the athletes—performing on the day—and it will reward athletes who have the highest degree of performance. “