Controversy over new Olympic selection plan

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British athletes seeking selection for the Olympic Games will have an extra incentive to contest the trials next June following yesterday's announcement by the British Athletic Federation of a new policy.

The system of picking the first athlete in the trials, plus up to two others per event, has been replaced. Now the first two will be guaranteed places - with only one discretionary choice available - providing qualifying standards have been met. This method was last used in 1989.

More controversially, athletes have also been told by the British federation that they must compete in their own event at the trials in Birmingham from 14-16 June, with the Olympic team due to be chosen by 1 July.

But the crucial question of making the trials, which are run in conjunction with the AAA of England Championships, closed to overseas competitors is still not resolved. The BAF, and the majority of athletes, believe closed championships are needed to prevent potential qualifiers being edged out by foreign competitors. But several officials within the AAA are arguing to maintain a tradition of open competition which has continued for more than 100 years.

Following an acrimonious meeting on Tuesday night, officials from BAF and the AAA were due to talk again last night about the issue.

The review of selection policy follows the controversy of last summer's world championship trials, when many leading competitors did not take part and - a tradition that has thrived in the last 15 years - many who did chose events outside their main area of excellence.

The selectors are prepared to look at any "exceptional circumstances" of injury, but have set a 1 July deadline for the team and will discourage athletes from chasing last-minute places.

The former double European 400 metres champion Roger Black and the high- jumper Geoff Parsons, who have consulted 120 athletes over their views on selection in the last couple of months, yesterday issued a statement welcoming the new policy. "We believe that the views expressed in our recent survey of a significant number of athletes have been taken into account," they said.

But the views of two leading British athletes served to underline the complexity of the issue and the diversity of opinion among competitors.

"It is probably a hangover from last year when certain people didn't compete," said Curtis Robb, the AAA 800m champion.

The directive on running one's main event also causes Rob Denmark, the Commonwealth 5,000m champion, distress, compounding his earlier dissatisfaction over the decision to include heats as well as a final in his event.

"It just makes things so much more difficult," he said. "I have done the AAA since 1988, and I'm not saying I need any preferential treatment. But I would probably have wanted to run only two or three 5,000s before the Olympics, and now I've got to run two of them at the AAAs. They have boxed me into a corner. Because some people upset the applecart then, they have changed the system because they want to be seen to be strong. But if you are good enough for the team, you should be able to get into the first two places. If they don't make the championships 'closed' after all these changes, though, it just makes a mockery of the whole thing."

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