2020 Olympic qualification: Nilani within striking distance
By Anjana Kaluarachchi
The newly introduced World Ranking system for athletics has created confusion among the athletics fraternity in Sri Lanka, with some Media even reporting that double South Asian Games Gold medal winner Nilani Rathnayake had qualified for 2020 Olympic Games, which will now be held in 2021.
Ceylon Today can confirm that though Nilani is within the world top 45 eligible to compete at the Olympics as of now, those rankings are set to change drastically once competitions start post November, and Nilani has a long road ahead to secure a qualification spot, which will require her to compete in several championships which are ranked high in the world athletics competition list.
According to World Athletics, there will be 45 athletes eligible to compete in her pet event – the 3000m Steeplechase. Nilani who set a Sri Lanka record of 9 minute 46.76 seconds, finished fourth in the Asian Championship and sixth in the Asian Games, and is ranked 35th with 1180 points.
Despite being one of the country’s top athletes, Nilani unfortunately was someone who got very little opportunity to compete internationally. In 2017 she only competed in two international events, while in 2018 her only recognised international event was the Asian Games where she finished sixth, purely due to lack of quality competition. In 2019 she again competed in just two 3000m steeplechase international events. In the Asian Championship she was well on course to win a Silver medal, but fell at the last hurdle and finished fourth.
Her pet event , the 3000m steeplechase, was scrapped from the South Asian Games, but she got an opportunity to compete in the 1500m and 5000m and she made it count by winning Gold medals in both events.
The 29-year-old from Rathnapura who trains under Director of the National Institute of Sports Science (NISS) Sajith Jayalal, has been a consistent performer in recent times. She lives and trains in Boralanda (in the Badulla District), to get much needed high altitude training along with the rest of Jayalal’s training group, as the authorities have failed to provide a decent high altitude training centre for middle and long distance athletes despite the athletes performing remarkably well in these events, including World Championship and Olympics in the marathon (men and women).
New ranking system
Until the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the world governing body adopted a qualifying standard, and any athlete who achieved these standards in any world athletics or member federation approved competition was eligible to compete in the Olympics (upper limit of three per country for an event). But that qualifying standard had its drawbacks, such as some athletes failing miserably during the Olympics and degrading the competition level, while in several others questions arose about the legitimacy of how athletes achieved those standards.
To address such issues World Athletics introduced a new World Ranking system and raised the direct qualification system (times/distances/heights) to Olympic Bronze medal level in some events. If there were not enough direct qualifiers to fill the quota of each Olympic event, World Athletics had the authority to select athletes based on the world ranking system to fill up the quota.
For example, the 3000m steeplechase qualifying standard in 2012 was 9:48.00 and 2016 was 9:45.00. Nilani had almost reached the 2016 standard (9:46.76 seconds), but for 2020 the new direct qualification time is 9:30.00 seconds, 15 seconds faster time than in 2016.
So far only 18 athletes have achieved direct qualification for this event, and to make up 45 the rest will have to be drafted from the world rankings, where Nilani is ranked 35th. However, once World Athletics resumes competitions from 1 December, these rankings are bound to change.
The ranking system
The world ranking system gives ‘Performance score’ and takes into consideration the top five performances of each athlete (three for middle and long distance) and take its average as ranking points to rank athletes according to their event.
These performance scores will be tabulated corresponding to their achievement, plus bonus points added based on their position and rank of the competition. World Athletics has ranked each competition – such as world events, area championship and national championship – and allocated different bonus points to those championships, rather than taking into account performance at a regular local event.
For example, Himasha Eashan clocked 10.22 seconds in the 100m during a National trial which earned him 1132 performance score, which corresponds with the IAAF scoring table for a 10.22 seconds performance. But had he won the National Championship in that time he would have collected 1232 points (1132 +100), which he could only otherwise achieve by clocking 9.92 seconds. Also, if he had won the Asian Championship with that time he would have collected 1302 points (1132+170). This is equal to points which someone would earn with a performance of 9.72 seconds, a time better than last year’s World Championship Gold medal winning time.
Performance during heats and semi-finals of elite competitions, too, will give athletes bonus points, and all these details are available in the World Athletics website, which is a bit too complex and lengthy to be written down here.
How to stay on top
Since the world ranking system takes into consideration five performances and gives bonus points to top competitions, it’s important that local athletes get more opportunities to compete in higher ranked competitions. Presently only the National Championship gives bonus points for performances (amoung local competitions). Athletics Association has the opportunity to conduct two more National Championships once the sport resumes on 1 December and before the deadline of 29 June 2021 (except for Marathon and race walking). Also, with three of five performances being considered for ranking, competing in just three or five competitions too will not be enough, as it’s very difficult even for top international athletes to perform at the highest level for three or five competitions at a stretch.
In Nilani’s case exposure to high class competition is very important as she is a lone runner from the starters gun in Sri Lanka with no one being able to get even close to her, and she finds it difficult when she has to rub shoulders with much better runners on the international stage, and that too just once a year.
Value for open championship
Open Championships such as the Thailand Open and Brunei Open were considered useless by many coaches, and some even compared them to New Year festival events. Last year the Sports Ministry scrapped funding for teams to compete in these Open Championships. But the ranking system has given a much higher value for these championships as they are national championships of those countries where the top eight of each event gets bonus points. Hence, it will be important that Sri Lankan athletes get opportunities as much as possible in higher ranked competitions, even though it is the Brunei Open, Malaysian Open, Philippine Open or Asian Championship.