After an almost 20-year hiatus, there is much debate over the reintroduction of semi-finals. But whether people like them or not, semi-finals and all the new television and ticket revenue they will bring are here to stay. After a summer experimenting with the semi-final format, few swimmers or coaches were delighted, although most tried to make the best of it before the 2000 Olympics.
The last time semi-finals were held in the Olympics was at the 1980 Games in Moscow, but semis were only contested in the 100s. ÔB' Finals were introduced in Los Angeles in 1984. This was the same time when entries per country were reduced from three to two per event.
The format was revived, according to LEN Director Alessandro Sansa, "to make swimming more attractive, more interesting, and more marketable." The idea was to spice up a sport that is considered boring for television, making the best swimmers more visible and therefore more interesting for eventual sponsors.
The Europeans were the first to give the new semi-final format a try in the long course pool in Istanbul. Following in the tradition of track and field, LEN modified the Olympic swimming schedule and came up with its own qualifying procedure. After preliminaries, the top sixteen swimmers qualified for the semis. Then the top two swimmers in each semi made the final, followed by the next four fastest times. This led to some more exciting racing and strategic swimming in the semis. Heats, semis, and finals were held in the 50s, 100s and 200s over the seven-day competition.
At Canadian Nationals in Montreal, heats, semis and finals of the 50s and 100s were held over a four-day meet. After testing separate ÔA' and ÔB' finals over the last several years, it appears there is still much confusion. Introducing stroke 50s and semi-finals into a four-day meet seems like downright overkill. However, four days may seem like a great idea next June when the Olympic Trials drag on for eight days.
The Pan Pacific Championships in Sydney followed the Olympic program to the letter, which meant a different selection process for the semis than in Europe. FINA's selection process is based entirely on time, meaning the eight fastest swimmers from the semis make it into the final. Heats, semis and finals were held in the 100s and 200s of all strokes and the 50 free. Over eight days, the meet was long enough to fit in all the events, and gave the swimmers a taste of what is to come next summer.
The question is: did anyone ever think to ask the swimmers? Or the coaches?
And, if the idea of having semi-finals was also to introduce a tactical element to racing, the FINA selection process to be used in Sydney 2000 is a questionable way to go. With time the only deciding factor, it is arguable that those in the first semi are at a disadvantage compared with those in the second. The second heat can see exactly what the first heat has done, and swimmers know how fast they have to be. Even in the 50 free, where there is no tactical playing around, the advantage is a psychological one.
In Istanbul, many of the top women swimmers scratched events to ready themselves for their best races. Sue Rolph (GBR) skipped the 200 IM in lieu of the 100 free. She won that race, but her 2:14.62 from British Nationals would have placed her second in the 200 IM. "The semi-final format doesn't please me a lot. But next year at the Olympics I'll be able to swim everything I want, as it is eight days long. I won't give up the IM, but when it comes to the crunch I think it's the sprint freestyle where I'll be around."
Inge de Bruijn (NED) scratched the 50 fly to prepare for the 100 free. Although she missed the gold in the 100 free, the former world record-holder in the 50 fly was still glad she scratched. "I am very positive about that decision, I always have been. I knew I couldn't go the time that Anna-Karin Kammerling (SWE) went."
Butterfly specialist Mette Jacobson (DEN) did not swim the 200 free in order to swim the three fly events. Jacobson was seeded first in the free; her time of 1:59.75 from Monaco would have earned her the silver at Europeans. Hungarian Agnes Kovacs had to swim the semis of the 50 breast minutes before the final of the 200. Fortunately it proved no problem for the youngster; Kovacs swept all three breast events.
Some swimmers did see the advantages though. Those who have trouble swimming fast in the morning can be more relaxed in the heats. Semis and finals are then held in the evening sessions - allowing them a possible two swims at a time that is better for them both physically and mentally.
One German coach commented, "For the spectators we noticed it was actually relatively senseless because they didn't know which final was which. They couldn't understand why some race winners got medals and others didn't. But for the swimmers it's a good thing. It can be interesting, but it certainly separates the men from the boys."
In Sydney many of the top swimmers decided to go for it and swim as many events as possible. The most successful was American Jenny Thompson, already well-known for her ability to accumulate top performances. She swam seven events, which meant thirteen races in eight days. Nothing compared to the twelve races she used to swim in three days during her dominance in the American NCAA. Nonetheless, Thompson swam on all three US winning relays, and she raced and won the 50 and 100 free and 100 fly heats, semis, and finals. She also swam heats of the 200 free. "I think that the new format is very challenging for sprinters in particular, since they have more swims with the relays. You could be swimming as many as 12 times. That's a lot for such a high profile meet. It's been pretty tough ... but I'm sure other people will be in the same boat next year."
"I do think that the organizers probably should have asked the athletes' opinions, but when has that ever happened? They never ask what the athletes think," Thompson says. "Overall, I think that for people swimming one event the format is a good opportunity, but if you swim a lot of events you can get a bit tired...actually a lot tired!"
Double-gold medallist Susie O'Neill (AUS), who raced the 100 and 200 fly as well as the 200 free and three relays, says she doesn't like the new system either, "but I guess it gives you more opportunities to race better times and also we train for it, so it's not bad."
Penny Heyns of South Africa, who set four world records at the Pan Pacs, says all swimmers will have to get used to the semis. "Each time we go up and swim it's another opportunity [to race] so it's good in that respect," said Heyns. "I don't think the format is hurting people that much."
On the men's side, Michael Klim (AUS) swam six events at Pan Pacs. Klim is used to racing a lot. He raced eleven times in one week at the 1998 Worlds, but under the new Olympic program, he may have to swim up to fifteen times next year in Sydney. Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED) swam seven events at Europeans. He won six golds including the 50 fly, which is not an Olympic event. But like Klim, van den Hoogenband could have as many as fifteen races next summer.
Australian Swimming president Terry Gathercole and national coach Don Talbot have spoken out against the demands of semi-finals and believe that the move will signal the end to achievements such as Mark Spitz's seven golds in 1972. They have also challenged that the semi-finals will give the US an unfair advantage, because it has greater depth in its team. Americans will have the edge in the relays. Their depth will allow their multiple event swimmers like Thompson the chance to rest from the heats and just race in the finals. However, both countries will most likely have the same number of swimmers at next year's Olympics.
LEN Director Sansa commented that he personally would not have had included semis in the 200s, but points out that a swimmer like van den Hoogenband did win six golds, and would have had seven had the Dutch relay not been disqualified. "On the one hand you can say it does make the swimmers more tired, but looking at van den Hoogenband you can see it's still possible to win many races even with semis."
He continued, "And a top swimmer like Popov gets more visibility this way. We see him at least four times on TV, and that makes him and the sport more marketable."
Aussie sports fans will shell out a small fortune for a chance to watch their local swimming stars shine at the Homebush Pool in Sydney's western suburbs. The pool will have seating for 17,500 people, and ticket prices in Sydney will range from $35-$140 for prelims to $95-$455 for semis/finals.
Multiply that by eight days and someone is making a bundle. But what about the parents? If Thompson's mother wants to watch all her races, heats, semis, finals, and relays, she could end up paying close to $6,000 for seats directly in front of the competition pool.
However, six grand is nothing compared to what the Malar family may have to pay to watch their daughter. On the conservative side, Canadian Joanne Malar may swim the 200 and 400 IM, the two free relays, and maybe the 200 free. If she makes all her finals, her family could end up spending $12,000 on tickets if all five want to watch Joanne in Sydney.
The addition of semi-finals will fill the pockets of television broadcasters and organisers while parents will have to fork out big bucks to keep their athletes in hotels over eight-day trials and then watch them race in the Olympic Games. The biggest burden may come after Sydney when more and more meets follow suit and start expanding formats by adding more and more events.
In the pursuit of so-called better swimming, FINA's new format may abuse the world's best by making them swim more races. Rather than building depth, the top swimmers will have to carry the sport into the next millenium, and perhaps be forced to sacrifice some events in order to keep up. It won't be long before stroke 50s are added to the Olympics, which may further impoverish the longer events.
Sansa says, "It's a bit too early to say anything about the semis just yet as we've had one (Europeans) long course meet in that format. Helsinki will be a similar program over seven days, and the Olympics will be eight. I think we'll be better able to judge just what it's doing for the sport in another couple of years."
Eight days is one thing. But four, as at the short course worlds in Hong Kong, or at the Canadian Nationals, is perhaps proof of a collective illness brewing, to go for a higher quantity of swims rather than higher quality. Time will tell, but it could be the sport's loss if the amazing athletes who have won four, five, or even six gold medals in them are too tired to complete a gruelling and stressful eight-day Olympic program.