Saturday, March 24, 2007

Just How Fast is Fast Enough? Part 1

Today in Melbourne is the start of swimming in the 12th FINA World Championships. I was curious about the qualifying times needed to swim in such an august event and how they compared to the Olympics and looked for them on FINA’s website. Found it difficult to find them, mostly because they don’t have any. That’s right, anybody can swim at swimming’s world championships – no different from your local masters swimming meet. OK that’s not exactly true, because you do have to be sponsored by your country and if your country is any sort of power in swimming being selected becomes problematical¹. But apparently there are plenty of countries where actual competition for the available spots isn’t a concern. Take the men’s 100 meter free – the premier event in swimming. The Olympics next year will see a little over sixty swimming the event. In this year’s world championships an amazing one hundred seventy six are entered. The first heat is populated entirely by swimmers with no times. Yes no joke, take a look for yourselves. Apparently they’ve never raced a 100 meter free before now. And not just this event, this is happening across the board for both men and women's events. To me the concept of starting out one's competitive swimming career by competing in a FINA world championship borders on the absurd but it’s true. The first appearance by a swimmer who can at least swim a hundred meters under a minute is the third heat. The Canadian men’s senior national qualifying time is 0:53.05 which would see you seeded no worse than the twelfth heat. Why is this happening? If anything shows just how important the Olympic Games are to our sport it’s the reason behind all this. For the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have made attending these world championships a requirement to be eligible for ‘C’ qualifying time consideration. You see every country wants to have Olympians but there just aren't enough Olympic calibre athletes to go around. So, because the Olympic Games is all about participation, the IOC has created a special category for athletes whose performance would never, ever allow them to see the insides of the Olympic Village but are the best their countries can send. The ‘C’ qualifier. I remember watching what I recall was either the 1988 Seoul Games or the 1992 Barcelona Games, whichever one was the first Games to have them, when CBC showed a ‘C’ qualifying swimmer almost not finishing the race. One of those, “hey guess what happened at the Games today?” spots. The TV announcers were laughing during the race, what with spectators crowding the pool side watching the man’s struggles and a dozen or so swimmers taking off their sweats just in case they needed to go in, that we might be witnessing the first Olympic swimmer requiring a lifeguard to save him. It was not, however, amusing to me when I thought of all those swimmers who worked so hard for so many years only to fall short of achieving their dream to swim in the Olympics. Clearly the IOC thought so too because they’ve made it much more difficult to qualify even under the ‘C’ category. I think, though, they have a ways to go.

¹Unless you’re Eric Shanteau, who finding Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte blocking his way in his favorites the 200 and 400 IM decided to concentrate instead on the 200 breast. Three weeks ago he qualified for these world championships in that event, even beating out world record holder Brendan Hansen in the process. You can read more about his remarkable accomplishment here.


Damien said...

I definitely agree that the Olympics and World Championships should have qualifying times. I can remember also in the 2000 Sydney Olympics when a man from Equatorial Guinea swim a 1:52 for 100m freestyle (slower than Ian Thorpe did for his 200 by quite a lot then). You're right, this kind of thing shouldn't be happening. If a country can't send a swimmer who can make the cut, then they shouldn't send anyone at all. It's an embarrassment to our sport otherwise.

Joe said...

I think our club needs qualifying times for lane 6. Man that Ian sets a blistering pace!

Scott said...

Damien: I don’t think it embarrasses the sport itself, though obviously these pretenders are demeaning the FINA World Championships. All the IOC has accomplished is to move the problem down to the next level rather than limiting the worst abuses which seems hardly an improvement. For me it can’t be stated enough, to have individuals competing in a world championship who haven’t even raced the event, or clearly can’t swim (there’s someone from American Samoa who submitted a 1:27.00 for his 100 free qualifying time for g*d sake) simply insults everyone who’ve had to qualify on merit. So I agree with you, they should have qualifying times for all international meets even if they make allowances, even generous allowances, for ‘C’ category athletes. The problem really is in the majority of cases these individuals are not there to swim but to get an IOC paid free Australian vacation. But when even basic requirements to curb the worst excesses seem obvious to all why aren’t they (being the IOC and FINA) putting them in place. For just one example they’re allowing these countries to enter multiple athletes in each event when Olympic ‘B’ qualifiers are limited to one per country. It’s all a mystery to me.

Matt said...

The NTs may be because they just don't have a valid time. Many countries don't have the facilities nor equipment to time a long course event; it's just how it is (pools are expensive to build and maintain).

The restriction on the Olympics is in place because the Olympics are getting too big (athlete/team number wise) for a location to manage. So, the IOC told FINA to find a way to limit the field--even though part of the Olympic movement is about inclusion for all. FINA has: moving those competitors to Worlds (where they weren't competing--they were just going to the Olympics), as well as limiting the meets where qualifying times for the Olympics can be achieved (and the "wide open" clause were a country can enter one person without a time in one event if they are the only person from their country in the sport).

If you think it's bad now, wait and see if the 50s of stroke get added (FINA proposed they be added and the same time the 10K request went in...)

Scott said...

After a few months swimming Masters I forgot FINA won't accept 'estimates' for qualifying times (though there are an awful lot of times ending in zeros on the start list). Likely, as Matt points out, the NTs are from National Swimming Federations who have followed the rules and refused to certify times for swimmers who've only trained in short course pools.