Emotion and anger as Olympic dreams die
Taekwondo has given Team GB its highest-profile selection drama yet ahead of a home Olympics, but the same scenes are playing out across many sports.
Britain will send a huge number of athletes to London 2012 but, for each athlete picked, others must tell family, friends and sponsors that they did not make it.
All the recent grief over Olympic selection has been well-publicised, chiefly world number one Aaron Cook's omission from the GB taekwondo team, leading some to wonder why things are so much worse this year than before any other Games.
In some respects, they aren't. Appeals are a fact of life ahead of any Olympics but this year's have gained more coverage because a home Games is on the horizon, which also accounts for the fact that some of the battles are more bitterly contested: the prize is that much greater, both psychologically and financially with sponsors showing great interest in sports they would never normally touch.
Aaron Cook (right) was controversially not selected by British Taekwondo. Photo: Getty
"Normally, it's not as public as it is now," agrees Liz Nicholl, the chief executive of UK Sport. Nicholl and her colleagues distribute the millions of pounds in funding to each of Britain's Olympic sports teams, so they take an interest in every selection decision made to see where their money goes. UK Sport even invests in Sport Resolutions, the independent body designed to oversee selection appeals.
"This is very high-profile and it's a difficult one - many of the sports we're talking about don't have a huge number of professionals working with them to manage the circumstances that evolve around this, particularly with media interest. It's difficult for the athletes and a very emotive time for them."
Host-nation places are where things most frequently turn sour. At the Olympics the hosts are always given many more places than usual as a reward for staging the Games. The problem is, the athletes going for these places are the ones who did not reach the Olympics on merit (otherwise they wouldn't need them) - so subjective decisions must be made, and arguments ensue.
"We had been told that if we were going to the Olympics, we would get a phone call on the Friday morning - and if not, we wouldn't," says fencer Jon Willis, who was relying on a host-nation place in the men's epee tournament for his ticket to London 2012.
"I was travelling to Stockholm for a competition that weekend, so I had my phone turned off on the flight on Friday morning.
"I got there, turned my phone on, and no message had been left. It was heartbreak in the baggage reclaim hall."
Willis has now announced his retirement, after an unsuccessful appeal in which he argued that British Fencing performance director Alex Newton had been biased against him.
The two have not had the easiest relationship and Willis felt that, even though he did not reach the Games on merit, his record outshone those of several fencers selected ahead of him.
"For 12 months, for me, it's been clear that I was never in the plans. I was dropped from funding a year ago," he says.
"Alex Newton never made any attempt to get to know me. She never bothered coming to visit me [at a training centre in Germany] to see what I do, she never asked to see my training diary, she couldn't tell you anything about me.
"It's like I was discarded from the very start and I'll never understand that. But [at the appeal] how do you prove someone has it in for you? You can't do it. I've got my opinions and I'm sure she's got hers, but she'll deny it every time. 'I've got no problem with Jon, I put the data to the selectors.' What can I say to that?"
That is, indeed, exactly how Newton - who joined British Fencing at the start of 2011 - sees it. She has had more than Willis to deal with, too. Five fencers have launched unsuccessful appeals and an online forum has been alive with criticism of her panel's Olympic selections, particularly young sabre fencer Sophie Williams, picked ahead of the more experienced Jo Hutchison.
Last month, The Times ran an article in which it was suggested Williams may owe her selection to her father being a prominent sponsor of the sport in Britain.
"I'm really sad for Sophie," says Newton, "for the negative press and comments about her. We should be celebrating a 21-year-old, someone for the future, who could perform as well as any of the other athletes.
"I'm not surprised people are disappointed that some athletes were not selected, but I am surprised they are taking it out on other athletes. Is it Sophie's fault? No. Has it knocked her confidence? Wouldn't it knock yours if you had a half-page spread in The Times saying your dad bought your place?
"I went on the forum and had a read of it. In the job I've got, you've got to develop a very, very thick skin. I don't like being called some of the names but it comes with the territory."
Host-nation places aren't the only source of rancour. Lucy Hall knows how Sophie Williams feels even though she competes in triathlon, a sport in which Britain earned its six places at the Games on merit alone.
But the selectors could still decide who from the squad took up those places and Hall, 20, was picked ahead of several contenders with much more experience of top-level triathlon.
British Triathlon wanted Hall to do a specific job. Her fast swim and strong skills on the bike make her an ideal candidate to perform as a domestique to GB's world number one, Helen Jenkins, helping Jenkins to victory.
"They made it very clear that I would be going to the Games to help Helen," she says. "I know I'm not a fast enough runner to go individually."
News of the selectors' phone calls to various triathletes soon leaked out online, while some of those involved confronted each other during training. Not everyone felt Hall had earned her place.
"It's controversial and some people aren't happy about it but unfortunately none of the other girls hit the selection criteria and I'm there to do a job," says Hall.
"I think they are fantastic athletes, and it's a really difficult situation - they are very upset. I can sympathise with that. Hopefully nobody has taken it personally, they know I'm not the head of selection. Sport is cruel, it really is."
Will Clarke was one of the triathletes overlooked. He feels he had comfortably marked himself out as the third-best male triathlete in Britain behind the all-conquering Brownlee brothers (GB receives three triathlon places per gender at the Games), but Stuart Hayes was selected as the Brownlees' domestique instead.
Clarke's argument is that he and other leading triathletes have given their careers towards reaching London 2012 but have had scant reward for years at the top level. He feels the selection policy set the bar unrealistically high and, when none of GB's second-tier triathletes cleared it, unfairly handed the likes of Hall a chance without proving themselves on the world stage.
He was with top female GB triathlete Liz Blatchford when both received the calls to say they would not make the team.
"Liz was really upset and so was [fellow triathlete] Jodie Stimpson," recalls Clarke. "I think they feel they've been screwed over a bit, pretty betrayed. I'm sure Lucy Hall is the most fortunate Olympian out there.
"It was pretty emotional. There were a few tears kicking around. The goalposts kept on getting moved as to what I had to do to qualify, it was a really bad system. The team was basically picked around the Brownlees and Helen Jenkins and we had no chance to qualify in our own right, it was made too hard."
Now, Clarke and several similarly overlooked colleagues are planning to strike out for the Ironman triathlon circuit, largely based in the United States, as something to take their minds off their Olympic disappointment. Clarke says he could come back for Rio 2016, but only if he knows he has a strong chance of selection.
"I think relationships within British triathlon will be a bit rough and there'll be a lot of bitchiness out there," says Clarke. "It will change things, it will be hard for a while."
For Willis, the journey is over and he is finding it hard not to hold a grudge.
"I can't be two-faced about it," he says. "I can't be nice to somebody who I think has ended my fencing career and stamped out my dream. I can do my best to be civil, but why would I want to spend any more time than I have to?
"I think this will be a divided GB team. I hope it won't be, I hope somehow we'll all be friends, but this was always going to be the problem. I don't see how it can be a happy camp."
Newton defends the process and looks ahead. "The winners are obviously happy and the losers are obviously unhappy, but we have a genuine agreement that we need to work together and support each other," she concludes.
"I've always said host-nation places would be a double-edged sword with so much at stake. We could easily get sidetracked by the noise and distractions, and lose focus. It's been a tough time.
"Come Rio 2016, there won't be host-nation places: you qualify on merit, or you don't go. These places are gifts to athletes who have not qualified, and it's a home Games - any athlete wants to go. Don't we all?"