The making of an Olympian

The USA Diving Olympic selection process favors bureaucracies over results.

>As Olympic teams are announced this summer, the dreams and ambitions of thousands of athletes are being crushed and realized in gyms, pools and on tracks all over the nation. One such dream that has recently been shot is that of USA Diving Olympic hopeful and former Gophers diver, Jessica Livingston. Her story sheds light on a severely undemocratic USA Diving selection process that uses increasingly questionable procedures to not only produce results, but also to safeguard its funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) – at any cost.

Livingston’s Olympic dreams began with her and her diving partner perched atop a 33-foot cement platform. Livingston and her partner, 2000 Olympic gold medalist and 2005 World Champion, Laura Wilkinson, have been the nation’s premiere diving duo since they began competing together in 2005. Last week, however, the Texas-based team, who are the current national champions, was denied an Olympic berth in favor of a pair of nationally funded 15-year-old girls, based on a committee decision after a private selection camp held in Knoxville, Tenn. Closed diving selection camps such as this have not always been used in USA Diving. After the USA Diving team failed to come home with a single medal for the first time in 92 years from the 2004 Athens Games, USA Diving made some changes. They created rules in which the governing body could select the individual and synchronized teams based solely and subjectively on the performance of the teams or individuals at these camps. The camps were initiated after another attempt to revamp the system that had failed in 2004. Using a traditionally eastern European sports model, USA Diving commissioned money from the USOC to create a National Training Center in order to draw in talented athletes with the promise of free training and living stipends – with a catch: The only way divers could receive money is if they uprooted and moved to the training headquarters in Indianapolis. The pair of 15-year-olds Hayley Ishimatsu and Mary-Beth Dunnichay, which ousted Wilkinson and Livingston for the Olympic berth, has indeed been groomed by USA Diving in this fashion. Thousands of dollars are commissioned from the USOC to train, house and send them to competitions. The girls were moved from their homes and placed in Indianapolis, where they train and live with other divers at the National Training Center. It makes sense, then, that the USA Diving system, which pumps money into certain athletes, would favor those particular athletes in the closed selection process for a competition – namely the Olympics. How embarrassing that USA Diving would pump the USOC’s money into grooming champions when another team (Wilkinson and Livingston) – not funded nor based out of the National Training Center – actually emerges as a better choice. And indeed, on paper, Wilkinson and Livingston have proved themselves worthy of the Olympic spot over the two younger girls. At the selection camp, Wilkinson and Livingston won two of the four competitions against the 15-year-old girls. Their average meet score was above that of the girls, which is indicative of a successful and consistent team. The discrepancy between scores of the four competitions of Wilkinson and Livingston was around 9 points, while there was nearly a 40 point gap between the high and low scores of Ishimatsu and Dunnichay. Although Ishimatsu and Dunnichay’s highest list was some 11 points above the best list of Livingston and Wilkinson, one exceptional list of dives at a closed selection camp does not earn an Olympic medal. In an e-mail sent by the Committee for Competitive Excellence, which ultimately selects the Olympic team, Chairman Bob Rydze cites that Ishimatsu and Dunnichay’s high score at the camp would have medaled at past international competitions, thus rationalizing the selection. However, this rationalizing falls flat if you examine each of the top scores of all 31 divers, including Ishimatsu and Dunnichay who participated at the camp. None of them attained their high score from the selection camp during the 2008 World Cup circuit (a competition Rydze cited in his e-mail). How can a high score at a closed camp be indicative of how they would perform in front of the entire world? When you crunch the numbers, it isn’t. Taking previous competition records into account, Wilkinson and Livingston have fared better in head-to-head competition against Ishimatsu and Dunnichay. Since 2007, the teams have competed against each other eight times (not counting the closed selection camps). Of these competitions, Wilkinson and Livingston defeated the young pair six times, by an average of 24.72 points, which was the difference between a bronze medal and 7th place at the 2004 Athens Games. Although it’s true Ishimatsu and Dunnichay have competed at more international meets than Wilkinson and Livingston, it was the same biased selection process that placed the girls in those meets to begin with – giving them more opportunity to compete. Even so, of the international meets Wilkinson and Livingston have competed in, their average score of around 307 points out shadows the international average score of around 293 points of Ishimatsu and Dunnichay. Wilkinson and Livingston’s record and experience should have earned them that coveted spot. However, the intricate laws and bylaws that USA Diving set up after Athens to ensure the selection committee would have the final say in who goes to Beijing nullified virtually any previous record of experience or virtuoso either team has had. It entices the question: why wouldn’t USA Diving choose a team that clearly has a better competition record? Wilkinson and Livingston are taking their case to an arbitration court to battle USA Diving’s questionable decision and ambiguous selection procedures. Initially, the Selection Committee said they would use individual results from the trials when selecting the paired teams. Oddly enough, just hours before the start of the selection camp, USA Diving issued a statement saying it would no longer consider individual scores from the Olympic Trials, without consent from the USOC, which must over see all selection procedures. This decision seems to have been made to favor the nationally funded teams like Ishimatsu and Dunnichay. Individually at Olympic Trials Wilkinson defeated Ishimatsu (the two strongest divers of their respective teams) by some 16 points, while Livingston defeated Dunnichay by nearly 60 points. Had these individual results been taken into account when choosing the synchro team, it would have made the case for Ishimatsu and Dunnichay much harder to sustain for USA Diving officials. Stories like these aren’t uncommon for those who follow the interesting lives of the elite athletes of the world. Gymnastics faces the same sort of selection process, which produces medals and breaks the hearts of athletes every four years. This commentary is not suggesting that using a subjective system doesn’t produce Olympic glory; however, using the system and creating laws which leave the athletes at the wayside to save face of a failing organization is opposite of the American dream in which hard work and results should pay off. While Wilkinson has already earned an individual berth, the dreams of Livingston to represent her country in Beijing have dwindled into a filing at an arbitration court. Reluctant to take the case to court, she said in a phone conversation that it goes beyond the point of her going to the Olympics or not, but it’s the bureaucratic system she’d like to see change. USA Diving’s incessant quest to keep those whom they deem worthy of the USOC’s money in the spotlight has reached the breaking point this summer. Livingston may be David in this battle against a closed off Goliath, but she’s clearly at the top of her game. USA Diving did not make themselves available for comment on this story. Jesse Maple is the Editor of the Opinions Page and former University diver. Comments are welcome online or at [email protected]