003.013b Olympic Team Trials for Age Group Athletes

In a previous post entitled “Deconstructing the Olympic Team Trials Qualifying Times”, we analyzed the process by which USA Swimming chose the qualifying times for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials.  We learned that USA-S significantly favored men in three Trials events and women in two, and discovered phenomena that favor 18/under women in the non-freestyle events and 18/under men in longer events.  We saw that these phenomena combine multiplicatively to create greater opportunities for 18/under men in the 1500m freestyle and 18/under women in the 200m butterfly and 400m individual medley.


In this post, we analyze the opportunities afforded to age group athletes at the 2020 Trials.  To do that, we’ll use our historical database of 23 million USA-S age group swims to calculate event acceptance likelihoods.  The event acceptance likelihood for a group is defined as the number of USA-S athletes in the group who recently swam at least as fast as the event’s qualifying time, divided by the total number of USA-S athletes in that group for which the event is recognized.  For technical background, please review “The Fairness of Qualifying Times”.  For analysis of related USA-S elite championship meets, see “Sectionals, Futures, and Junior Nationals”.

Trials are Evolving.

Trials are held once every four years, a month before the summer Olympics.  Like other elite USA-S championships, the Trials is a long course meet with open events.  Unlike other elite championships, the Trials is a massive eight-day meet that requires a valid US passport and conforming times -- LCM swims are the only ones that can qualify an athlete.  Although athletes must be at least 14 years old to swim in the Olympics, Trials have no age restrictions.


The 2020 Trials have three significant changes since the last time the meet was run in 2016: the qualifying period duration, the event qualifying times, and the events contested.


The first change is to reduce the qualifying period from 23 months to 19 months.  The 2016 Trials qualifying period opened on July 30 2014 and closed on June 20 2016, while the 2020 Trials qualifying period opened on Wednesday November 28, 2018 and will close on Monday June 15 2020.  According to USA Swimming, the primary purpose of this change is to reduce the number of entrants who fail to swim the event qualifying times at Trials.


The second change is to reduce the qualifying times for all events.  According to USA Swimming, the 2020 qualifying times were chosen to be (close to) the 70th fastest time in each event in the 2018 competition year with a goal of accepting between 1,200 to 1,400 athletes.  A related post analyzes the process used by USA-S to choose the Trials qualifying times.


The third and most significant change from the 2016 Trials to the 2020 Trials is the inclusion of two new events: the 1500m freestyle for women and the 800m freestyle for men.  Previous analysis has shown that USA-S makes it easier for 18/under men to qualify in the 1500m freestyle in Sectionals, Futures, Junior Nationals.  Here we’ll learn that the 2020 Trials qualifying times also greatly advantage 18/under men in the 1500m.

Trials are Challenging.

We’ll begin with the central question: how difficult is it for age group athletes to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Team Trials?  The answer is: exceeding difficult! Every 1,000 age group athletes will collectively qualify for 183 events at Sectionals, 108 events at Futures, 19 events at Junior Nationals, and only 3 events at Trials.  Thus, it is roughly 6 times more difficult to qualify for Trials than Junior Nationals, which are roughly 6 times more difficult than Futures.


Breaking down the Trials expected acceptances by age reveals that 14/under males and 12/under females have essentially no chance to qualify.  It also shows that 18/under females have a significantly greater likelihood of qualifying than 18/under males at every age.


Trials are Difficult for 18/Under Men.

18/under women are expected to qualify for 1.4 times as many Trials events as 18/under men.  When we limit our comparison to athletes with a credible chance of qualifying, as explained in “The Fairness of Open Events”, we learn that fastest 18/under women are expected to qualifying for 1.9 times as many events as the fastest 18/under men.  


Next we compare event acceptance likelihoods of individual Trials events.  Recall that the event acceptance likelihood for a group is the number of USA-S athletes in the group that recently swam at least as fast as the event’s qualifying time, divided by the total number of USA-S athletes in that group for which the event is recognized.   Including 10/under athletes in our analysis would depress the event acceptance likelihoods for the Trials events recognized for 10/unders (50/100/200/400m freestyle, 100m backstroke/breaststroke/butterfly, and 200m IM) relative to the Trials events not recognized for 10/unders (800/1500m freestyle, 200m backstroke/breaststroke/butterfly, and 400m IM).  To prevent this bias, we limit our event-level analysis to athletes aged 11 to 18.

Women’s Team Trials.

This plot shows that for every 10,000 female age group athletes, 5 will qualify for Trials in the 400m freestyle, 4 in the 800m freestyle, and 3 in the 100m butterfly. 

Female age group athletes are most likely to qualify in the 200m butterfly and 400m IM and least likely in the 50m and 1500m freestyle.  Of the two distance freestyle events, women are 1.5 times more likely to qualify in the 800m freestyle than the 1500m freestyle.  


Breaking down the female event acceptance likelihoods by age reveals that they are conditionally dependent on age.  For the freestyle events, a 16/under female is more likely to qualify in the 800m than the 200m, while for 17/overs the relation is reversed.  At all ages female athletes are most likely to qualify in the 400m freestyle and least likely in the 1500m. This is consistent with our previous analysis, which showed that USA-S explicitly disadvantaged women in the 1500m freestyle at Trials.


For the non-freestyle events, the 200m IM shows the greatest age dependence.  For 17/under female athletes, the 200m IM is one of the most difficult events to qualify for, but one of the easiest at age 18.  The 200m backstroke is one of the easiest events for 15/under female athletes to qualify in but the most difficult for 17/overs.  

Since Trials qualifying times do not depend on age, these phenomena must be developmental in nature.  We speculate that female athletes who attain their adult height early are advantaged in the 200m backstroke; this advantage is eliminated after all athletes have.

Men’s Team Trials.

This plot shows that for every 10,000 male age group athletes, 5 will qualify for Trials in the 1500m freestyle, 3 in the 800m freestyle, 2 in the 200m IM and 1 in the 100m freestyle.

Male age group athletes are most likely to qualify in the 1500m freestyle and least likely in the 100m and 200m freestyle events.  Indeed, the men’s acceptance likelihood in the 1500m freestyle is greater than any other Trials acceptance likelihood, men’s or women’s.  In a prior post we learned that USA-S explicitly favored men relative to women in the 1500m, and that the best Trials opportunity for 18/under men was in longer distances.


Breaking down the male freestyle acceptance likelihoods by age reveals that they are less conditionally dependent on age than for females.  The 1500m is the easiest freestyle event for 18/under male athletes to qualify in at all ages, while the 100m and 200m are the most difficult.


The non-freestyle events also show less conditional age dependence for males than females.  From ages 15 to 18, men have the greatest chance of qualifying in the 200m backstroke and 400m IM for the non-freestyle events.


Men’s Trials vs Women’s Trials.

18/women have a greater likelihood of qualifying for every Trials event than 18/under men with the single exception of the 1500m freestyle, where men have exp(0.7) = 2.0 times the likelihood of qualifying than women.  18/under women are most advantaged relative to 18/under men in the 100m and 200m freestyle where they have 2.6 and 3.0 times the likelihood of qualifying. 



In a related post, we learned that USA Swimming allocated roughly equal numbers of 2020 Trials slots to men and women overall.  However, 40% of the qualifying women are 18/under, where as only 31% of the qualifying men are 18/under. As a result, more of the fastest 18/unders are women than men.  The effect is most pronounced in the non-freestyle events, where nearly 50% of the fastest women are 18/under.

Conclusions.

We’ve seen that the 2020 Trials provides significantly more opportunity to 18/under women than 18/under men.  This sex difference is largely because women reach their peak athletic performance earlier than men. As a result, 18/unders have larger share of the women’s Trial qualifiers than the men’s.


We’ve also seen that the Trials cuts greatly advantage 18/under men relative to 18/under women in the 1500m freestyle.  In a related post, we learned that this sex difference arises because USA-S explicitly allocated 27% more slots to men than women in the 1500m freestyle, combined with the fact that an unusually large share (40%) of the fastest men and an unusually small share (27%) of the fastest women in that event are 18/under.


It’s been over two years since the International Olympic Committee announced that the 2020 Summer Olympics will be the first Olympics where women will swim the 1500m freestyle. Yet USA Swimming has still not adjusted the qualifying times for its elite long course meets to reflect this fact.  Sectionals, Futures, Junior Nationals, and the Olympic Team Trials all advantage men relative to women in the 1500m freestyle.  This asymmetry is unique to these meets because it does not occur in the age group championships sponsored by LSCs or Zones.  It’s long past time for USA Swimming to raise the women’s qualifying time in the 1500m freestyle or lower the men’s.