The Olympics is designed for underdogs

Everyone likes an underdog. The British, however, love them. It’s much more acceptable to cheer an unlikely winner than a likely one. How fitting then that Britain should host the Olympics — a competition where the entry mechanics ensure that underdogs will turn up by design.

We’ve already been treated to a number of spirited and inspiring performances. These are delicately chosen adjectives, for the winning attributes were admittedly not strength, speed, or precision.

In this, the XXX Olympiad, the crowds kept cheering all the way up to the 8 minute and 39 second mark in the men’s single sculls second repechage. For a full minute and 20 seconds of that, everyone’s hearts and minds were the sole property of a rower from Niger … until he also managed to cross the finishing line, that is.

On the same day, swimmer Jennet Saryyeva of Turkmenistan enjoyed a full minute and 18 seconds alone in the limelight at the end of her 400m freestyle heat.

Both are clearly impressive athletes, and both are clearly not up to Olympic standard. They will have known that when they signed up. Given this, how and why did they enter?

This is where the special mechanics that are unique to the Olympic Games come in.

To use the Olympic jargon, it’s all about “universality”. Specified in the Charter that governs the Games, it’s there to ensure as global a participation as possible.

In order to achieve universality, the Tripartite Commission for the Olympic Games organises the distribution of “invitation places” for athletes who fail to meet Olympic qualifying standards. The mechanics read like they are the end-product of many years of effort.

For a nation’s athletes to even be considered for any such invitations, it must be that the country had fewer than six athletes, on average, in the prior two Olympic Games.

There are also certain minimum standards that the athletes have to meet for their chosen sport, but it’s less of a question of passing a qualifying time, and more of a question of whether the governing body for the sport in question thinks they are up for it. Complete amateurs need not apply.

Each Olympic sport has an overall quota in terms of number of participants. Some Olympic sports set aside invitation places specifically within their quotas. Here’s a table of those that did so for the London games:

Issanka, the rower mentioned above, was a recipient of one of the above spaces — but it’s not like he was handed this on a plate and then showed up on the day. The “Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron”, the international governing body for rowing, had taken him under its wing, facilitating preparations in a training camp in Belgium.

In addition to the above sports that have quotas, the following may have invitation places if there are spaces left over after qualifying athletes have had dibs: boxing, cycling, fencing, taekwondo, wrestling, and sailing.

Finally there is the possibility of National Olympics Committees entering unqualified athletes for athletics and swimming if they have no athletes who are actually qualified.

The governing body for swimming, FINA, has on its website a list of invitees (or “universality places”), their events and their times. It features Saryyeva, with a time of 5:41.09 against her name. Elsewhere on the FINA website are the Olympic Qualifying Times. For Saryyeva’s event, it was 4:09.35.

FINA has the times of the invitees because it requires they participated in the World Championships in Shanghai in July 2011. Travel costs, accommodation and meals were supplied by FINA for at least three swimmers of nations seeking universality places, making the financial burden less prohibitive.

Without such invited athletes, or indeed national quotas, the Olympics wouldn’t be much different to most world championships. The defining characteristic would be that all the championships occur in the same city at roughly the same time — like a mega championship with better TV coverage …

Minus the underdogs who serve to encourage greater participation in sport in their home countries;

Minus the geography lessons as one wonders where this or that flag is from;

Minus the many nations that otherwise would not have appeared in the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony, or would otherwise only have had a single representative or two.

Thankfully we don’t have all those minuses. Instead what we have is someone to cheer other than just our own Olympians. As the BBC commentator put it while covering Saryyeva’s swim live: “[The crowd is] cheering the person who’s losing more than the person who won. That’s a British thing, isn’t it?” Sure it is, but even more to the point, it’s an Olympic thing.

Saryyeva finished her race in 5:40.29, faster than her time in Shanghai. She’s 18, and a student who trains twice a day, five times a week. She’s also one of only two women representing her country. Could we ask for more?

Lisa Pollack is a reporter for Alphaville, the Financial Times’ markets blog.