Facts that journalists should consider in racism accusations

We have an AP story today about an aboriginal runner, John Steffensen, who claims he’s the victim of racism in Olympic selection. Steffensen is threatening to boycott the Olympics, in which he has a relay spot, because Australia gave an individual spot to Steve Solomon.

Being the good Midnight Oil fan that I am, I tend to sympathize with Australia’s aboriginal population. But track and field is one of those sports that has objective data that lets us evaluate these claims. They’re called “qualifying standards” and “times.”

Here’s what AP has to say about it — “Solomon, who also achieved an Olympic qualifying time.”

And that’s it.

Journalists have to do more than this. Looking up times and qualification criteria is a simple matter. You can even start at Wikipedia to get a general sense of things and then verify the information therein. (Before pedantic folks cry foul at “Wikipedia,” please note the phrase “verify the information therein.” Wikipedia is a good starting point, and it often links to the sources you need.)

So let’s do it.

The men’s standards for the men’s 400 meters are: 45.30 for the A standard, 45.90 for the B standard.

What do the A and B standards mean? Check the IAAF explanation. Basically, countries can enter up to three athletes in each event if they’ve all achieved the A standard. The B standard is basically a backup plan so that countries that don’t have A-standard athletes can still get someone (one!) in the race.

Let’s look at the times for the people in question for the time period in question:

2011: Solomon 45.58, Steffensen 46.10

2012: Solomon 45.52, Steffensen 45.61

So if we’re going strictly on times, which AP didn’t mention in the story, Steffensen has no case. And in his Twitter feed, he doesn’t make much of a case, either. He veers back and forth between claiming racism and then claiming that he’s not claiming racism. (One error: “Anyways the boys pr is my seasons best!!” No, Solomon beat Steffensen’s 2012 best in 2011 AND 2012.)

Let’s check the Australian media.

Now it becomes trickier. It seems Steffensen did indeed beat Solomon in a trial back in March. And then Steffensen suffered a hamstring injury.

Are the trials supposed to be the sole determining factor if you have two or more athletes meeting the B standard but not the A? The federation gave itself some wiggle room here at the top of page 2 in its official nomination criteria (not the separate documents saying “We will have nomination criteria” or “Yes, we really have nomination criteria“), saying athletes can be chosen based on their World Championships performance, their performance at trials or at the “discretion of the Selectors.”

The criteria could be clearer, and Steffensen’s case is at its strongest when he says it’s about transparency. (It’s a little shakier when he says, “Hey, neither of us had the A! Why should either of us run?”) Fellow 400-meter Sean Wroe backs Steffensen based on his win at trials.

But based on available information, which seems more likely?

A. Athletics Australia has issues with aboriginals.

B. Athletics Australia is really impressed with a young phenom who has posted the fastest times by an Australian in each of the past two years.

Perhaps there’s more to the case that Steffensen could make. But maybe journalists should be asking. At the very least, the facts need to be out there.

Steffensen won the trial. Solomon has the faster times. That’s not in dispute. And journalists need to include those facts before racing with the “racism” headline.

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