Olympic Qualification; the deets.

Since the time is upon us, I figured I should actually explain the process of qualifying for the Olympics as it pertains to beach volleyball.  It can be confusing, looooooong, and calculating the points is tough even for the mathematicians among us, but I will do my best to lay it out for you. 

Olympic Qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Games technically began in September of 2018 (earliest ever), but the first qualification event for us was the NORCECA Championships in the Dominican Republic that Alix and I were able to win (!) towards the end of October.  

The first step towards qualifying for the Games is to play in at least twelve FIVB World Tour events. However, you must take into account that the FIVB uses a star system to differentiate the events. Most important are the 5 STARS, the cream of the crop, where you have the opportunity to win the most amount of points and prize money (unfortunately there aren’t very many of these each season, I think there are two in 2019). Then come the 4 STARS which are a pretty big drop off from a 5 star in regards to points and money, but the competition is usually the same as at a 5 star (you gotta get those points somehow!). You get the idea, 3 STARS are worth less, 2 STARS and 1 STARS are usually good for teams just starting out. Each event counts as one of your twelve finishes regardless of the star count.

Ok, get your thinking caps on because this is where it starts to get complicated.  On top of the star system there is also a “country quota” rule that limits each country to only FOUR teams. Each tournament (regardless of star ranking) is a thirty-two team main draw that takes eight teams from a twenty-four team qualifier.  So you can have four teams from each country in a combination of the main draw and qualifier in each tournament. The caveat is that even if all four teams have enough points to be in the main draw, the team with the least amount of points is automatically put in the qualifier…these rules start to seem even more outdated as I write them.  

You are allowed to sign up for 5-1 star tournaments based on the amount of FIVB points you have, so as you may have put together already, the top performing teams get first dibs on 5 and 4 stars, normally. Some teams that can’t get into those events then sign up for the 3, 2, and 1 stars to attempt to build up enough points to pass that fourth team that is qualifying for the top events. *Sidenote: there are wildcards awarded for each event and it’s possible for both to be awarded to the same country, as has been the case a few times in the last year for the U.S. (normally unheard of), so in that case one country could have up to six teams in one tournament. 

To determine where you rank among U.S. teams trying to get into the top events, teams add up points from their best four finishes out of their last six events in a 365 day period.  Because of this it is detrimental to play 3, 2, and 1 stars if you have good finishes in your last six events in 5 and 4 stars, sometimes teams won’t even play 4 stars in order to hold on to their 5 star points longer. Got it? Sure…haha. 

As far as Olympic qualification goes, you’re in a good spot if you’re able to land in the main draw automatically in 5 and 4 star events, but with such a long qualification period there is room for lots of movement if you don’t perform.  The race to get as many points as possible in at least twelve events goes all the way up until June 2020, almost a full two year period. Then at the end of the qualification period you take your best twelve finishes and stack them against all the other American teams’ best twelve finishes. 

IF you find yourself in the top two places among U.S. teams you have a very good chance of going to Tokyo in July.  BUT, and here’s the catch, you must also be in the top fifteen teams in the world (also based on your best twelve finishes). If that happens then the two top American teams (per gender) will automatically get bids to the Olympics, yay! 

If there is only one team that qualifies in the top fifteen, then there are a few other routes that the other team can take. One is through a continental qualification tournament and the other is through a last chance qualification tournament with teams from all over the world who still have yet to qualify (at least that’s how it was in 2016).  If neither team is in the top fifteen then they would both play in the continental tournament and/or last chance tournament (as one team, I don’t have time to explain this one) and then have a playoff versus each other to determine the ONE team that would represent the U.S.A. in Tokyo. Intense!!

There was a time when USAV wanted to hold a “one-off” Olympic qualification tournament in the U.S. with only American teams, but there were too many variables. First, two teams would have to qualify two spots for the U.S. the traditional way I just outlined for you, but that wouldn’t mean they’d actually get to go to the Olympics, they’d still have to make the final of this U.S. qualification tournament, which is pretty unfair in itself.  But also, what if a team that had been dominant all year leading up to the Olympics incurs an injury or gets ill? And the way a team matches up against international teams can be different than how they match up with American teams. A team that beats top international teams that will be at the Olympics, but matches up poorly against another American team could lose out on the chance to go to the Games when they might actually be our best chance. Or a team with no chance otherwise, competing in this one-off event with “nothing to lose” may play super loose and upset some teams that have consistently done well internationally in high pressure situations. However, that team that played well with nothing to lose cannot be expected to play the same way on the biggest stage in the world at the Olympics. The liability of an event like that could be too great. Consistency and strength should have to be proven over time against the best teams from other countries.

One situation I didn’t discuss, but I find notable (especially because it happened to me) is the possibility of having multiple teams in the top fifteen in the world. All technically deserve to go to the Olympics after having proven they are among the best in the world, but because the Olympics has a two team per country quota, only the top two get to go. This is in order to ensure room for teams from countries that may not be as competitive, but wouldn’t be represented otherwise.  Jen Kessy and I were ranked fifth in the world at the end of the qualification period for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but barely missed out because there were American teams ranked first and fourth in the world ahead of us.  I’m very conflicted about this rule, obviously… but those are the rules.

I think that’s basically everything you need to know about how to qualify for the Olympics in this sport… the only other caveat is that if you win the World Championships this year in Hamburg your national federation (USAV) gets an automatic bid to the Olympics, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the team that won gets that spot, but ultimately it is very likely that that team would claim that spot in the end.  The race on the women’s side will be competitive, there are many more teams doing well internationally this quad than there were in the quad leading up to 2016. 

This is my fourth attempt at qualifying for the Olympics, it’s exciting. I love my team and I’m having more fun playing and traveling than I have in a long time.  We are super motivated, but have a long way to go. I hope you’ll cheer for us!

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