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Selection processes for Olympic teams may seem unfair, but like competition, it's never that simple

Keith Carroll Jr. (106) and Ryan Pivirotto (103) crash in the men's 1000-meters A final race during the U.S. Olympic short track speedskating trials Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, in Kearns, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Keith Carroll Jr. (106) and Ryan Pivirotto (103) crash in the men's 1000-meters A final race during the U.S. Olympic short track speedskating trials Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, in Kearns, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer, AP

Anyone who has ever played sports at any level knows it’s not fair.

From who makes a roster to who gets on the field during games, there is always a clash between objective data — speed, strength, stats — and subjective assessment of those admired but impossible to quantify intangibles — competitive drive, tenacity and resilience.

In fact, the recognition that some aspects of competition are outside one’s control might be one of the most valuable aspects of both participatory and competitive sports.

That reality, no matter how completely understood by every participant and fan, is also the most hotly debated and most frequently criticized.

As much as people seem to understand competition (and life) isn’t fair, many just can’t seem to accept that injustice is part of the experience, when it comes to specific circumstances.

Maybe no other situation highlights this age-old debate more clearly than the selection of which athletes will represent the U.S. at the 2018 Olympics.

The sanctioning body of each sport comes up with its own criteria in deciding which athletes will make up an Olympic team. Some use a winner-take-all type of competition, like speedskating, while others consider an athlete’s accomplishment over multiple competitions, like snowboarding.

Some try to do both — offering a guaranteed spot to the winner of an Olympic trials event, like Nordic combined and ski jumping, while then using some combination of results and coach observation for the remaining spots, like bobsled and skeleton.

The reality is that no selection process is without controversy, no matter how teams are selected.

Two cases in point are short track speedskating and men’s figure skating.

The U.S. men’s 5,000-meter relay team that set a world record and won two World Cup medals this season will not be competing in the 2018 Olympics. That’s because one of the skaters — Keith Carroll Jr. — didn’t make the short track team during trials last month.

Also, two-time Olympian and owner of three Olympic medals J.R. Celski was the most successful individual skater in World Cup competition, but he won’t skate all three individual distances in his third Olympics because he struggled at trials, crashing during several races.

So is it the best strategy to have a winner-take-all competition in a sport as unpredictable as short track? What if a skater is sick during trials? What if he or she just has an off weekend?

With a winner-take-all format, an athlete’s consistency and overall accomplishments take a back seat to individual performances on one weekend.

Enter U.S. figure skating.

The powers that be in figure skating tried to avoid the dilemma raised by the winner-take-all format by setting up a difficult to understand criteria that weighs results on several levels over the year leading up to the Olympics.

So while the U.S. national championships might be the single best case a skater can make for his or her Olympic qualifications, the actual Olympians are selected by a committee in the hours after the national competition.

This year, the women’s team was less controversial because the committee could easily justify sending the top three finishers from the U.S. championships. There was some criticism from 2014 Olympian and fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner about how she was scored artistically, but for the most part, the three skaters who landed on the podium had more consistent — and better — finishes than those who finished in fourth, fifth or sixth places.

On the men’s side, that was not at all the case.

With the exception of Salt Lake native Nathan Chen’s dominating defense of the national championship, the competition was a series of shocking mishaps and surprising upsets.

That led to almost certain controversy.

Two of the men who failed to make the podium — 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon and 2014 Olympian Jason Brown — had better overall finishes than the men who finished second, Ross Miner, and third, Vincent Zhou. While Miner was the only top man to skate a completely clean program, he hadn’t earned a top-three finish in a national competition in five years.

Rippon’s overall success, on the other hand, was only eclipsed by Chen’s.

The injustice of the moment is that Miner is 26, and this was likely his last shot at an Olympic team. In an especially cruel twist of fate, his longtime coach, Mark Mitchell, was passed over for an Olympic team in 1992, when he placed third at nationals.

Miner had a magical moment at the 2018 U.S. Nationals, and the fact that he finally seems to have found the success that has eluded him throughout his career is upsetting to even the most casual fan. He was the epitome of hard work and tenacity paying off.

But the reality is that Rippon, 28, has a better shot at earning a medal in Pyeongchang than Miner does. In the wake of the decision, which was announced Sunday morning, it seemed the committee added insult to injury when it named Jason Brown as first alternate to the Olympic team — jumping Miner even for that consolation prize.

The first thing Rippon did when he learned of the committee’s decision was to text Miner. He’d praised the skater the night before, congratulating him on a phenomenal performance.

It’s understandable to feel heartbreak for Miner, and to discuss if there isn’t a better system for selecting Olympians. Maybe there were unintended consequences that officials need to understand and that can be dealt with differently in the future.

2016 silver medalist and newly named U.S. Olympian Mirai Nagasu was passed over for the Olympic team in 2014, and she worked hard to earn results that would make it impossible for the committee to deny her this time. Even she wouldn’t say the system is unfair and should change when offered the chance to do so Friday.

The reality is that every athlete who competes at this level understands the rules of the game. They know that there are situations that will help them and situations that will unfairly penalize them. The question isn’t whether an unquestionably fair selection process is possible, but rather how athletes rise to the challenges that accompany such massive, public disappointment.