Getting in the Game

(Clockwise, left): Sha’Carri Richardson, Ryan Crouse, Colin Duffy, and Jess Davis going to Paris. Photos from AP,,, and USAPenathlon.

NBC is marketing their end-of-June Road to Paris coverage of the swimming, sprinting, and gymnastics USA Olympics Trials by calling it “the toughest team” to make. It’s probably true. But not in the way that they mean. Some slots on Team USA are extremely hard to make. Some are under the glare of some very bright spotlights. If you, budding Olympic athlete, participate in one of the marquee sports for U.S. on prime time, then you have to do your sport while everyone’s watching, and with cameras shoved in your face.

But there are 48 sports, with 329 separate events, scheduled for the Summer Games. Once you factor out swimming, track and field, gymnastics, and basketball–the sports that are talked about incessantly–that leaves 44 more. It can also be hard to be one of the best in the world in a discipline that garners almost no attention and little support. What if you’re on a U.S. team that is going for a four-peat and no one outside your sport even knows that it’s played? Or worse–what if you have no chance of medaling? And the only people watching you qualify share your last name because they’re you’re family? That might be just as tough.

Suppose you’re really popular *coff Caitlin Clark* but you don’t get a slot. Don’t the teams just choose whoever they like? it’s not that simple. There are rules for who gets to compete.

With Everyone Watching

Three years ago, Sha’Carri Richardson was a cocky 21-year-old, smoking the other 100 m sprinters with times that began to approach Flo Jo’s thirty year old record. After winning the USA Track and Field Trials, she pointed a six-inch nail at the time as if to say, I’m coming for you, world record. But a few days later, she tested positive for marijuana and, just like that, Olympic dream was over. Family tragedy and personal grief was followed by public humiliation as she had to explain repeatedly why and what and who and how.

Last night, her nails were even longer, but her manner a little more subdued. She’d spent the last three years proving she still had it, beating even the Jamaicans in 2023. This time, instead of pointing at her very creditable 10.7 seconds, she crossed her long fingernails over her heart, and knelt for a few minutes after the finish. Her speech to the cameras afterward was brief, followed by a step back for her teammates. She was always going to be the fastest; this was tough for other reasons.

Katie Ledecky will defend her four medals from Tokyo, photo from Yahoo! sports)

There are only a few athletes who can qualify for each event from the USA, but there are just a handful whose faces grace the top of the feed and whose names highlight the modern news reel. It’s not just amazing that Katie Ledecky also pasted her swimming competition in the 800 and 1500 m, but that everyone expected her do so, had cameramen pointed at every member in a family, and speculated on how much farther ahead she would be. It is tough if you’re not just expected to win but to set a world record every time.

For Noah Lyles, Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, and Simone Biles, it’s tough to win and qualify, because they are household names. Perhaps it would be best for us to step back from expected and land on amazed. Sha’Carri and Katie were amazing.

You might wonder, why go through all this. If we all know that Biles, Ledecky, Richardson etc. are the best, why not just give them a slot instead of suffering through these trials/ If that seems silly, then think about the conversation in place about the dynamic college basketball star, Caitlin Clark, whose pro team was 2-9 when selections were made.

Cameron Brink made the 3×3 Olympic team, photo from FIBA World Cup 3×3.

You Can’t Just…

There is a qualification process for Olympic sports, and it’s not based on popularity or who can sell the most tickets even when columnists, say at The Wall Street Journal, claim: “let’s face it, Olympic basketball is a business.” News flash: it’s not. It might be for YOU, but the Olympics was not created to entertain journalists or to make money.

Some sports are very popular, even when they aren’t particularly competitive, basketball being the prime example. The U.S. women have won gold 9 out of their 11 appearances and are going for their 10th-peat. The U.S. men have won 16 out of 19 matches and are going for their fifth-peat. The women are selected carefully based on performance, and at the time of the selection, Caitlin Clark’s Indiana Fever were 2-9. The men seem to be selected based on whether they’re willing to go. But basketball and its dubious selection process differs from most of the other sports.

Contrast it to 3×3 basketball, which was added in 2020. The rules for qualification help explain how teams are selected in general. The first limit is how many teams the Games will accommodate, based on the resources available for that venue. In Paris, that will be eight teams. Beginning in the 2000s, teams require parity, so eight for women and for men. The host country usually gets an automatic spot as long as they field a team for world-ranked events; France actually beat some other teams, so they qualified on their own. The other seven teams play in tournaments to either win their tournament or rank high enough to qualify.

The U.S. women 3×3 squad won the world cup in Austria in the spring of 2023, so they earned a spot. The best player in the tournament was American Cameron Brink, who also happened to be the star center on Stanford’s basketball team. (Breaking my rule that as a Cal alum, I typically disdain Stanford, except for their women’s basketball team.) Brink was named tournament MVP. As a result, Cameron Brink was a qualifying selection for the U.S. 3×3 team for Paris. Brink, sadly, just tore her ACL in an WNBA game. (She’s a monster shot-blocker and will be back!)

So why not just stick Caitlin Clark in Brink’s spot? Aside from the fact that they don’t play similar styles and who knows if Clark would be good on a 3×3 team, the bigger issue is that Clark hadn’t played in a 3×3 world event. You had to play in that sport in a world qualifying event in order to qualify.

The “selection room” from 2012 Gymnastics Trials, photo cropped from Youtube.

The Chosen Individuals

Some of the confusion over the selection process stemmed specifically from gymnastics and its televised trials, I think, back in 2012. The women could qualify as individuals based on world rankings on a specific apparatus, but there was also a team selected. At the time Marta Karolyi and other coaches might choose slightly different combinations based on their own criteria. NBC showed them heading off into a special room at the end of the trials, making it seem as if Olympic selection were an episode of “Survivor” or “The Bachelor.” This suggested that there was a choice in the matter. There might be for gymnastics, basketball, or a few other sports, but for most there is not. You have to compete in a world ranked event within a specific time period and win or place high.

What does become “tough” for Americans who compete in the marquee sports is not the selection committee in a room, but the limited number of available spots. This varies by sport. In swimming, there are two slots per event for an NOC–a National Olympic Committee. If the U.S. has the six fastest swimmers in the world, they only get two slots. That is tough.

Richardson, Jefferson, and Terry qualify for the 100m at the US Team Trials (photo from

In track and field, Team USA generally gets three spots per event because of our world ranking. That’s good news for Sha’carri and her training partners Melissa Jefferson and Twanisha Terry, who finished 1-2-3 at the Trials.

Nobody Knows

It’s great then to be top three in the U.S. track and field, but it can still be tough if nobody watches your sport. Consider Ryan Crouser, who will be returning to Paris to earn a record third gold medal in the shot put. The American men have won as many shot put gold medals as they have basketball, but Crouser is not a household name. Yet he took his third win at the U.S. team trials. NBC appears to be trying to rectify that, as they had a nice segment about throwing with him and Peyton Manning. (Though they need to show them both throwing a football and then throwing a shot put.) Crouser is a giant 6’7″ bear of a guy, a gentle giant.

Ryan Crouser taking the US Team Trials in 2024. (photo from AP)

But at least track and field gets some viewing. Colin Duffy is one of the world’s best rock climbers, competing at the Tokyo Games at only 17 years old. He came in seventh, but in the 2023 World Cup, he took a silver. Thus, he’s qualified again for Paris. Is it better to be in a sport that no one’s ever heard of?

Colin Duffy poised to rise in the ranks? Photo from Wikipedia.

It must be hard to compete for resources. You might pick up a sponsorship, but it would be something in-sport, like a shoe or a bandage. No TV money. Lucky to get Gatorade. You must really love the sport.

The American’s women water polo team is going for their fourth Olympic gold medal. Did you know we had a women’s water polo team? (If you read my books, you did, ’cause they are a kajmeister fan favorite!) Our men’s water polo team has not qualified.

The incomparable Ashleigh Johnson, still blocking! photo from USA Water Polo

Nobody Seems to Care Either

The U.S. teams don’t always get a spot. While our basketball and women’s soccer team get a lot of press, other teams don’t. Women’s field hockey qualified. Men’s did not. Our handball teams did not qualify, although there are American teams and they do play in the world tournaments. Handball, in fact, is one of the most popular sports in the world, and Kazakhstan and Montegro have both qualified teams. No U.S.

Maybe the reason can be explained by the notes on the Team USA handball website which said that “due to disputes over funding, general lack of fiscal discipline, and accusations of incompetence, on February 14, 2006, the USOC revoked the governing duties handball from the governance board.” They also announced that last month, two members of the current board resigned. How much desperation must there be for an under-resourced U.S. athletics team when the governance board can’t even get its act together. Kazakhstan and Montenegro did. It must be really tough to be on an American team that couldn’t even push past Kazakhstan or Montenegro.

It doesn’t stop athletes from fighting on, though. Suppose you are Jess Davis, a triathlon and multi-sport track and field athlete, daughter of an equestrian and ironman competitor. You qualify in the modern pentathlon, a crazy combination of swimming, shooting, equestrian, running, and fencing. You placed in fourth in the WORLD in a sport that no one pays attention to. You don’t have your own wikipedia page and searches for your name and pentathlon don’t even come up consistently on USA

You fight on anyway. Because it’s not a popularity contest. It’s about the love of sport.

2 Replies to “Getting in the Game”

  1. I look forward to your Olympics insights every couple of years. My wife and I are huge fans and take in as many of the televised sports as we can. Four years ago, we watched an extraordinary amount of men’s water polo as, especially the first week of the game, it was the bulk of what was televised in real time. Most sports were significantly delayed for a US viewing audience and we often knew the winners before we ever got to ‘see’ the competition. Streaming should make that better. We’re all set up now to watch the channels that will stream lots of the venues in real time…besides men’s water polo. Bring on the games!

    1. Peacock is a good buy at only $11.99 without ads, month to month, so you can just buy premium for a month or two … I definitely do not like their interface which is for people who watch TV only on their phone. The old NBC Sports streaming was better, but we can’t have everything our way all the time… 🙂 There’s too many single pictures of all the options. I hope they find a way to help us sort once there are all 44 sports up there. But! I have found it useful to practice using their interface now, and I’m getting in the groove of sifting through what I want to see only. That way you can only watch the US women’s water polo instead of all the Serbians, Croatians, Montegrans, etcetera etcetera. It will be a nine hour delay so checking the schedule will be important! thanks for your note–

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