Yesterday we reported on the social media furore that followed the decision to leave Luke Dillon- the highest ranked Brit on the QS- off the British team heading to the 2019 ISA world games.
While controversy often follows national team selection, people’s frustration was particularly acute as this year’s ISA’s stand as Britain’s best shot at Olympic qualification.
While the 2020 ISA’s promises fierce competition and qualification spots only for the top four finishers, 2019 will see the top-ranked European surfer (not including the French, who will likely hit their qualification quota through CT rankings) instantly awarded a spot in the Olympics. While Dillon would by no means be a shoo-in , he is the only British male who has been consistently competing against Europe’s best surfers over the last five years and has, on occasion, taken down top-ranked competitors like Joan Duru and Frederico Morais as well as a slew of promising up and comers.
So why was Dillon not selected for the team?
Well, the qualification criteria states that spots number one and two are awarded to the first and second place finishers at the British surfing cup, which went down in Jersey at the end of last month, and the third spot can then either be awarded to the third place finisher, or a wildcard.
To qualify for this wildcard entry, the criteria states a surfer would have to achieve ‘exceptional results in European events/WCT/WQS or other significant international surfing event.’
A selection panel made up of the head coaches of each nation (England, Scotlad, Wales and CI) was given the vote on whether the third spot should be awarded to a wildcard or the third place finisher. This vote reportedly returned a 3-1 result in favour fo the third-place finisher, handing the spot to Jersey based surfer and lifeguard Nathan Elms.
As this decision was made solely at the discretion of the voting members, we decided to contact British Surfing to see if they could offer some further insight.
Arlene Maltman, a former British and European surfing champ, president of Jersey surf club and member of the British Surfing board responded to our request for comment on behalf of the organisation.
She told us that the qualification eligibility criteria was developed to honour the goals of the aspiration fund, the Olympic ethos and to make surfing accessible to all.
“We wanted to encourage surfing at a grassroots level,” she explained, “that’s saying to anybody, if you’re interested in qualifying, national championships are your first port of call. That was made very clear to every athlete.”
“I understand that there were conflicts at the time [of the event] and some people chose to do other things,” she continued. “Luke Dillon did not show up for either contest, he was, from what I understand, in Newquay that week, then he went on to a festival and then went on to South Africa in June, so that was unfortunate that he didn’t show up.”
While not competing in the British cup in Jersey meant Luke would be unable to qualify via the first and second place finisher spots, it should not have affected his eligibility for the wildcard position. The British Surfing team selection document clearly states surfers remain eligible if they have competed ‘at some point’ in ‘their respective Home Nations competition pathway.’ The phrase ‘at some point’ rather than ‘in the last year’ was presumably used deliberately here and as Luke has been competing in the English and British nationals for many years, he definitely ticks this box.
We want to state here clearly and unequivocally that we’re sure Nathan Elms is an excellent surfer, and we’d like to congratulate him on making the team, but we also feel duty-bound to question why the mechanism put in place to ensure that Britain’s highest ranked surfer could be included in the team was not used.
When we put this to Arlene, she replied that it depended on the definition of ‘highest ranked’.
“We’ve tried to build the team up with the values of the Olympics and the values of the aspiration fund.” she continued. “Nathan Elms works at the RNLI, he’s a lifeguard, he has a career, he hasn’t chosen a career as a professional surfer, what you’re really talking about is the delineation between professional and amateur athletes. The great thing about this pathway is it’s open to all, and Nathan Elms epitomizes that personal spirit; he’s not a professional surfer, but he’s a very talented surfer who’s very underrated. We’re not picking the team on professional results, that’s why we set up this criteria.”
But if the pathway was set up purely to increase accessibility for amateurs, then why have the dangling carrot of ‘QS wild card’ in the qualification criteria at all?
“That was taken from surfing Australia and one of [Britain’s four] nations in particular wanted to put that option in there.” British surfing declined to identify which home nation coach pushed for the inclusion of this criteria, and which voted for it to be utilised.
In addition to the outrage over Luke’s lack of inclusion, many online commentators have questioned why the qualification process is based off one event, rather than incorporating the UKPST- the rankings of which would arguably provide a much more comprehensive picture of the country’s top competitive surfers. While the UKPST and BSA have had difficulties communicating in the past, if the ISA and WSL could bury the hatchet for the sake of getting the best surfers in the world in the Olympics, we don’t see why the various folk who preside over British surf comps couldn’t.
Ultimately from our conversation with Arlene, it seems British surfing was juggling two competing aims when it came to defining its team selection policy. Their first was to set a clear criteria that favoured grassroots participation and set up a pathway for future athletes and the second was to send the best team available, based on a mixture of amateur local and professional international events. We understand why they’ve let the former aim take precedence over the latter, but fear in doing so, they may have relinquished a genuine opportunity to see a British surfer qualify for the Olympics.