The following is an editorial that does not necessarily reflect the views of SwimSwam.
On Wednesday afternoon, FINA announced that it would take no action on the result of a water polo tournament between France and Canada at the 2016 Olympic Qualification Tournament.
In what should have been a competitive match, France lost a lopsided 13-5 affair to the Canadians, which allowed them to play the Netherlands in the first round of the knockout stages. Canada, meanwhile, was destined for a much stronger Spanish side as a result of their win.
FINA continues to design and decide the last four “at large” qualifiers based on a flawed tournament schedule that doesn’t necessarily determine the best four teams in the spirit of the qualification.
The qualification tournament is designed much like the Olympic Games themselves. The 12 participating teams (the men’s and women’s tournaments are the same) are split into two pools. The top 4 teams from each pool are seeded into an 8-team bracket. The top team in bracket 1 plays the bottom team in bracket 4, and the 2s and 3s play their opposite from the other bracket.
Once in the bracket, literally only the first game matters. The winners of each of the first round games go to the Olympics. Sure, they go ahead and play the tournament out, but nobody puts “Olympic qualification tournament champions” on their resume. They put “Olympic qualifier” on their resume. While there are some minor seeding implications at the Olympics, with only two pools at the Games, even the seeds there don’t make much of a difference.
And so when the Netherlands upset a clearly more superior Spanish team in the opening round of Group B play, the door was opened for controversy. After Spain beat eventual tournament runners-up Italy, and by the time the final day of competition and the Canada-France match arrived, it was basically inevitable that the head-to-head win would give the Netherlands a 2 seed in Group B, and Spain a 3 seed. That meant that it suddenly became advantageous to not be a higher seed in Group B, because that would mean a more challenging play-in game to qualify for the Olympics.
Canada is probably a superior program to France, and had the match been played straight-up, they probably would’ve won. But all that does is highlight the disaster that is the qualifying procedure – were Canada interested in self preservation, they would have been better-served trying to lose the match as well. This could have turned into a farce where both teams were scoring on their own goals.
The French team that lost 13-5 to Canada should not have been capable of beating the Netherlands. There’s no guarantees that Canada would have made it either (they wound up losing to the Netherlands by 1 in a meaningless 5th-place game). But the point is that allowing actions like France’s makes for an impossible to adjudicate scenario, though the IOC has in the past disqualified participants in badminton for the same rouse.
There’s a simple solution to the problem: make a round-robin tournament, let each team play the other 11 teams, and the teams that come out on top go to Rio. Every team gets a chance at every other team, and if they lose, then so-be-it, but at least they had their chance in the water to prove it.
South American uses this system do decide its World Cup participants in soccer (football). Each of 10 teams play a home-and-home match with every other team, and the top 4 teams go, with no brackets, no playoffs, and no knockout stages. Doing such a robust qualifying in water polo is probably not feasible on a logistic level – there’s not enough money to fly every team around the world, and playing 22 matches in any single week would be too grueling to be fair – but certainly each team could have a crack at every other team.
The Olympic movement is about spirit as much as it is about letter-of-the-law, and to all outside observers, the spirit of the game was violated with France’s display in Trieste. A system that has never really felt proper revealed its biggest loophole in April. FINA’s hands in their decision were tied in a gray area of differentiating between a team having a bad day and one that makes a mockery of the competition. In fact, FINA probably made the right decision in not overturning France’s qualification (especially since the Canadians would not even have been the team to benefit). But it was the decision to structure the tournament in a way that losing can be incentivized, that derailed the integrity this competition.