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Allegations of bias, inconsistency in Olympics yachting selections

Dana Johannsen, Sports Correspondent

Yachting NZ is accused of mishandling its Olympic selections after one of its star crews was picked for the Paris Games, despite failing to meet the required performance standard.

Jo Aleh and Molly Meech, who paired up in the 49erFX class at the beginning of 2022, headlined the announcement of the New Zealand sailing team for the Games last month. With five previous Games appearances and three Olympic medals between them, the pair are the most experienced of the nine-strong team named thus far.

But according to Yachting NZ's selection documents, the duo were not eligible to be considered for nomination, having failed to achieve a top 10 placing at one of the designated selection regattas. The selection was signed off by the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC).

Both organisations are adamant proper process was followed in the nomination and selection of the pair.

However, Yachting NZ's apparent willingness to contort its criteria for Aleh and Meech, along with a perceived inconsistent application of the "emerging talent" clause, has led to several disputes over its handling of selections and allegations of bias.

Secret selection criteria leaked

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Yachting NZ has long maintained a cloak of secrecy around how it selects its athletes for the Olympic Games. It is the only national body that does not publicly share its nomination criteria - contravening the NZOC's nomination and selection regulation - and sailors wishing to be considered for the pinnacle event must agree to keep it confidential.

However, RNZ has obtained a copy of the selection documents.

New Zealand's sailors must clear an even higher bar than the NZOC's already lofty "top 16" criteria to be nominated for selection. Under its primary selection criteria, Yachting NZ selectors will only nominate athletes deemed capable of winning a medal.

To be eligible, sailors and crews must have, as a baseline, achieved a top 10 placing in at least one selection regatta, or have medalled at a world championships during that Olympic cycle.

There is a second pathway for sailors or crews that Yachting NZ selectors consider to be "emerging talent" and have the potential to medal at the next Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028. Under these criteria, sailors need to finish in the top 16 nations at one of the selection regattas to be eligible.

Aleh and former sailing partner Polly Powrie, affectionately known as Team Jolly, won gold in the women's 470 in London and silver in Rio.

Meech was also a silver medallist in Rio, alongside teammate Alex Maloney in the 49erFX class. The popular duo went their separate ways following a disappointing 12th place finish in Tokyo.

Meech then linked up with Aleh at the beginning of 2022 to form Team Jolly 2.0.

Despite their credentials, the new pairing have produced mixed results on the international circuit.

In the first of two selection regattas, Aleh and Meech placed 34th at the European Championships in Portugal last year - well outside the top 10 benchmark - before recording a 12th at the World Championships earlier this year.

Prior to being named in the Games team last month, the duo had recorded just one top 10 result at a major international regatta in two-and-a-half seasons - a sixth placing at the 2023 world championships.

It is understood selectors relied heavily on this result, despite it not being an official selection regatta.

Under the criteria, selectors can also consider "a sailor or crew's track record of success at past Olympic Games". However, those familiar with the policy say these factors only come into play in final deliberations once sailors have met the underlying eligibility criteria.

RNZ has spoken with several past and present members of the NZL sailing team, who expressed concern about Yachting NZ's handling of this year's selections. None wanted to go on the record for fear of being seen to diminish Aleh and Meech.

All made a point of saying they would not have wanted to see the 49erFX pair left out of the Olympic team, but a recurring theme of the conversations was that Yachting NZ's perceived inconsistent approach to its selections has created distrust in the system.

Aleh did not want to be drawn into the debate over the merits of her inclusion in the team, but told RNZ via text message that she is "very pro-selection, having had close friends impacted by selection policies in the past".

"In terms of the YNZ policy we were happy to be selected and for us it was just a little step on the way to what we are trying to do in Paris. So our focus is very much on making sure we are doing everything we can over the next few months," she wrote.

Since being named in the Olympic team, Aleh and Meech had a breakthrough result last month at French Olympic Week in Hyeres, claiming the bronze medal - a promising sign the pair are beginning to perfect their partnership.

But it is clear on anyone's reading of the criteria that Yachting NZ have applied an extraordinary amount of discretion to include Aleh and Meech in the team.

In a brief statement provided to RNZ, Yachting NZ boss David Abercrombie said the organisation does not publicly comment on individual nominations, but all sailors and crews were selected in line with its policies. The nomination of athletes "follows a rigorous process led by an independent panel with a wealth of sailing expertise and experience".

NZOC secretary general Nicki Nicol also asserted proper process was followed.

"All selections are made by an experienced selection panel. Decisions are evidence based and athletes nominated by [national sports organisations] are assessed by the NZOC selectors against the agreed nomination criteria and the NZOC selection policy," she said in a statement.

Selection discretion: Pedigree vs potential

The discretion used to pick Aleh and Meech appears not to have been as readily available to others.

RNZ understands at least one sailor - kitefoiler Lukas Walton-Keim - has lodged a formal appeal with the Sports Tribunal over his non-nomination in the new Olympic class.

Walton-Keim is the partner of Olympic pole vaulter Eliza McCartney, who last weekend spoke out about the NZOC's controversial "top 16" selection policy, arguing qualified athletes should not be denied entry to the Olympics.

It is understood Walton-Keim's case will be heard this week, unless a resolution can be reached in the meantime.

All parties agree to confidentiality when a case is before the tribunal, but it is understood Walton-Keim is seeking nomination under the "emerging talent" clause.

Two athletes have been selected under this criteria - boardsailor Veerle ten Have in the women's IQ foil, and Greta Pilkington, who is expected to be confirmed in Ilca 6 at an official announcement on Tuesday morning.

Ten Have finished 22nd and 21st overall at her two selection events, but was easily inside the top 16 nations for both events.

Pilkington had a shaky start to her campaign, recording 53rd and 44th placings in the first two selection events earlier this year, before pulling it out of the bag in the final event in Hyeres last month. There the 20 year-old finished 16th, and 14th nation.

It is expected Walton-Keim's case will focus on the inconsistent application of the "emerging talent" clause.

Walton-Keim finished 28th, 17th, and 27th at his three selection regattas. His 17th placing at the European Championships last year put him inside the top 16 nations.

While not official selection regattas, the 28 year-old is also tracking strongly at recent events. He finished 11th at French Olympic Week in Hyeres, or ninth nation, and 17th at the Formula Kite world championships (15th nation) earlier this week.

Following the event, Walton-Keim posted on Instagram: "I'm not sure what's next, I'd like to do some more racing in 2024 ... let's see."

'Rigid' with rules 'when it suits them'

One former international sailor said the governing body's flexibility is at odds with its "rigid" approach in the past to not only Olympic nomination, but also funding decisions and selection to its "Fast Track" development programme.

"YNZ will follow the rules to the absolute letter when it suits them. We're always being told, 'Well, the policy is very clear,' but then when they want to get someone in the team, suddenly there is all this grey area," they said.

Abercrombie did not directly address questions related to whether he has concerns about perceptions of bias and growing distrust in the system. But in a statement, he said Yachting NZ's policies are "transparent and available to every athlete throughout their campaigns".

The long-serving chief executive of the organisation also said the current policy was "developed after an athlete-led review following the Tokyo Olympic Games" and athletes will continue to be involved in refining the policy for future cycles.

Nicol also ignored questions about whether the NZOC had any concerns about Yachting NZ's handling of selections.

"While we are not able to comment on individual cases, we do understand how tough it is for athletes that may not have been nominated by their sport for selection to an NZ Team."

It is not the first time questions have been raised about Yachting NZ's approach to selections for pinnacle events. In 2016 Sara Winther (laser radial) and Natalia Kosinska (RS:X) took cases to the Sports Tribunal over their non-nomination for the Rio Games.

While the tribunal ultimately ruled in favour of Yachting NZ, the then-chair of the arbitration body Sir Bruce Robertson was highly critical of the sport's handling of selections.

"I have concerns about the inadequacy of communication by YNZ to both athletes. While the selection policy is drafted to provide huge discretion to YNZ, this does not obviate its obligations to abide by the rules of natural justice and to ensure basic fairness in its implementation," Sir Bruce wrote in his decision.

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