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.