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The unfair battle of Nicky Degrendele

TOPSPORT

8 MIN  |  DOOR EDWIN GULICKX      

Nicky Degrendele is a Belgian track cyclist, competing at the highest level in the sprint tournaments and a specialist in the Keirin. Nicky has a dream of becoming an Olympic Champion, which is not at all an unrealistic goal for the 2018 Keirin World Champion. But to qualify for the Olympics this time she was up for a big challenge. 


In order to get her Olympic nomination to go to the Tokyo 2020 games she not only had to battle other Keirin athletes. She had to battle nations. A fight she was not able to win in the end.

A double whammy going in the wrong direction

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed until the summer of 2021. Based on the current nomination rules Nicky Degrendele did not succeed to qualify for these games. She knew these rules during her nomination run. She acknowledges her defeat but wants to share the -unfair- rationale behind those rules to start a discussion. 


In this article I will show what it means to battle nations and why it’s not a fair fight. I will also show that the current qualification rules do not offer an equal opportunity to all riders (which we will call ‘athletes’ from now on, we are talking about the Olympics after all). And I will point out why it does not do right to the spirit of the Olympic Games. 


This article is a story about the hardship an athlete has to endure to become part of the absolute world’s best, while coming from a nation which has no national sprint team nor program. Only to find out that this disadvantage makes it even harder to qualify for the Olympics. It’s a double whammy going in the wrong direction. 

Nations, not athletes qualify

I refer to the UCI qualification system for this article as can be found on the UCI website. These rules state that: “Each UCI Olympic Track Ranking 2018-2020 includes results by nation…”. So Nation results are the basis, which exists of individual results earned during the following events in 2018-2020: 

1. The last two editions of each Elite Continental Championships 
2. The best three UCI Track Cycling World Cup results by nation of each season 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 (with at least one result outside of the NOC’s continent per season) 
3. The results by nation of the 2019 and 2020 UCI Elite Track Cycling World Championships 

The total number of athletes for the Women’s Keirin is 30: 
1. The 8 highest ranked nations in the Team Sprint will each qualify 2 athletes (in total 16 spots) 
2. The 7 highest ranked nations in Women’s Sprint which have not qualified any quota places in Team Sprint each qualify 1 athlete which can also compete in the Keirin event 
3. The 7 highest ranked nations in Women’s Keirin which have not qualified any quota places in Team Sprint each qualify 1 athlete 

Belgium is not able to compete in the Team Sprint as it does not have another track sprinter besides Nicky Degrendele. So the first 16 spots are not up for grabs for Degrendele. As the Sprint is not her métier these 7 spots are also not up for grabs. Which reduces the available spots for Degrendele from 30 to 7. 

How the Track Ranking is calculated

The UCI ranking of March 3 is the basis for the Olympic nomination and looks like this: 


So, no Belgium, no Nicky Degrendele. What went wrong for the former Keirin World Champion? Let’s dive a bit deeper in the underlying rules which determine a nations spot on the Keirin Ranking. Spoiler alert: all nations are equal but some nations just have more athletes. 


Let’s have a look at the Keirin Olympic Ranking of March 3, as this is the ranking which is relevant for Nicky Degrendele. First on the official list is Australia but they secured their Keirin quota places through the Team Sprint ranking and are therefore not a direct competitor for Nicky. The runner up on the list is Honk Kong, which has not secured their places through the Team Sprint. Hong Kong therefore takes the first Keirin spot. 


Let’s see how Hong Kong ended up with their 7,205 points in order to understand how the ranking works. We are in for a treat here, because now we’ll see how a ranking based on nations makes it unfair for Nicky Degrendele. 


If we look at the points of Hong-Kong we see that these are earned in ten different Championships and World Cups: 

Conclusion: The rules enabled Hong Kong on four occasions to secure double points. Take the recent World championships in Berlin for instance in which Hong Kong secured 1,125 for the fourth place by Wai Sze Lee and 180 points for the 23th place by Hoi Yan Jessica Lee. 


This brings an advantage to Hong Kong which Belgium will never be able to overcome as Belgium is only able to bring one professional athlete to the start. Belgium is therefore never able to secure double points. Guess who is winning a football match in which one of the teams is not able to bring a full team to the grass? 

The current system does not select the world’s finest

As we have seen: the current system selects nations, not athletes. The result is that the current system does not -by default-select the world’s finest. 


 In the Olympic Keirin there is place for 30 athletes. Nicky Degrendele is currently the 11th athlete in the UCI Keirin Individual ranking, but not able to secure an Olympic ticket through the Keirin nations ranking. She is not alone, her unfortunate faith is also shared by the Columbian athlete Martha Bayona Pineda, who is currently 3th on the individual ranking, and eight other athletes: 

Only 20 athletes of the current individual ranking have secured an Olympic ticket. Which means that of the 30 athletes competing in the Olympic Keirin race at least 10 are outside the current top 30. 

Why?

So now we come to a crucial question: why does the UCI use a selection criterium which allows multiple athletes to gather points while knowing this is clearly unfair to the smaller countries? The honest answer is: I don’t know.

Can we make the system more fair?

Creating a level playing field could be achieved through a correction for the double points. So no nation would be allowed to gather double points in any tournament. 


Would this have made a difference for the current selection? The answer is yes. The changes would be immense for the Olympic tickets, bringing Belgium and Columbia in the qualified places and Canada and the USA to lose theirs. 


To make this analysis I calculated an alternative ranking by only taking the highest points for each tournament for each nation, as this reflects the best placed athlete. 


For Hong Kong this would mean a correction of 1,065 points. Not merely as much as the 1,965 point correction for Australia. This makes both countries doing a flip-flop, bringing Hong Kong to the top of the list. 

Conclusion

One of the key Olympic values is not winning but participating. I believe that each athlete should have an equal opportunity to be able to so. In my analysis of the qualification of Nicky Degrendele I have seen that this is not the case for the Keirin qualification. 


We should always strive to find ways to make the qualification more fair. Hopefully this article contributes to this goal. 


Edwin Gulickx is co-founder of BEAT Cycling Club. Want to react to article? Mail: edwin@beatcycling.club


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