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'I disagree': Kiwi Olympic star Eliza McCartney's selection policy critique

Dana Johannsen, Sports Correspondent

Eliza McCartney, one of the stars of this year's Olympic team for Paris, has detailed grave concerns about New Zealand's tough selection policy, saying: "I disagree with denying qualified athletes entry to the Olympics."

The New Zealand Olympic Committee's (NZOC) lofty selection policy is once again being debated in the lead-up to the Paris Games as selections reach crunch time. McCartney, who has fought her way back from chronic injury to resurrect her pole vault career, is arguably the highest-profile athlete to speak out on the issue.

The criteria, in which qualified athletes must meet an additional performance standard to be selected for the Olympics has - directly or indirectly - scuppered the Olympic dreams of dozens of summer and winter athletes since it was introduced over two decades ago. It demands a higher standard than other decorated nations like Australia set for their athletes to attend and is expected to create further casualties of the policy this cycle.

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In a lengthy Instagram Story post on Friday night, McCartney cited RNZ's reporting on the matter as the prompt for her decision to speak out. She said she believed it was time for the NZOC to "reconsider the top 16 philosophy".

"With the utmost respect for the NZOC's role and the complexity of selections and team size, I disagree with denying qualified athletes entry to the Olympics," McCartney wrote.

The star pole vaulter highlighted two key reasons for her position.

"My main concern is the impact on individual athletes, including lost opportunities: experience, sponsorship, funding, longevity in high performance sport [and] ability to medal at subsequent Games.

"And the human element: grief, erosion of self confidence, loss of identity, [and] distrust in the system."

"Secondly, the top 16 philosophy is often justified with the idea of inspiring a nation by sending a 'successful' team. Yet this overlooks the fact that medals aren't the only source of inspiration. Every athlete has a story and these stories can inspire even in the absence of medals. The media have a role to play here too."

McCartney said her own Olympic story demonstrates it is not always the top performances that resonate with the public the most.

McCartney was the breakout star of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro when, at just 19, she collected a surprise bronze medal in the pole vault. But before her medal had been secured, the bouncy teen had already won the hearts of New Zealanders with her relaxed and joyful demeanour while competing.

"My experience in Rio illustrates the power of stories. Despite there being more successful New Zealand medallists with objectively better performances, I was raised into arguably the brightest spotlight, despite 'only' winning bronze," she wrote.

"While I am eternally grateful for the opportunities it provided, it underscores the importance of unexpected success and recognising the value in every athlete's journey."

McCartney finished her post with a plea to officials that the issue does not get overlooked again in the post-Olympics glow.

"I have never been adversely affected by this policy, and it's not my intention to be controversial. But I do think this needs to be raised now before it is lost in the post Olympics excitement."

McCartney's partner in Olympic selection struggle

While McCartney's personal selection chances have never been impacted by the criteria, her partner, Lukas Walton-Keim, is in a battle to secure selection for Paris in the new kitefoiling class.

It is understood Walton-Keim, who is currently competing at the kitefoiling world championships in Hyeres, France, has not been nominated by Yachting NZ for selection. Yachting NZ places an even tougher nomination standard on its athletes. Sailors need to be in the top 10 and demonstrate they are capable of bringing home a medal.

Walton-Keim was in 16th place overnight heading into the final few days of racing. McCartney's post made no mention of his situation and she did not respond to a request for comment.

The RNZ article McCartney cited at the beginning of her post examined the impact of the policy on individual athletes, their sports, and the wider high performance system.

In the story, NZOC secretary general Nicki Nicol defended the policy, contending the Olympic Games represents the pinnacle of athletic achievement, and therefore the criteria must reflect that.

Nicol said since the criteria was introduced in the wake of a disastrous Sydney Olympics, New Zealand's team size and medal haul increased over successive cycles.

"It is a threshold that we want athletes to aspire to, but also it is about making sure they can prepare themselves. Because actually, when they get to the Olympics, it is a really challenging environment."

Prominent sports lawyer Aaron Lloyd, who has represented several athletes in non-nomination appeals over the years, believes there should be a wide-ranging review of the policy after this year's Games.

"The policy has been in place for over 20 years now, it seems like about the right time to have a full review of the criteria and really look at the impact it has had on the sector. I think there's a lot of evidence out there to say it hasn't all been positive."

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