World Cup Watered Down


Karin Helmstaedt

After a less-than-spectacular Gelsenkirchen leg in late February, German swimming officials were among those who criticised the inflation of the FINA World Cup series, saying too many meets leave swimmers too tired to produce top performances.

"It can't go on like this-we have to reduce the number of competitions in international swimming," said Ruediger Tretow, president of the German Swim Federation (DSV).

Which raises the question of whether this year's expanded World Cup-from nine to twelve meets-has brought anything positive to the sport. In 16 previous years, the German World Cup meet produced 58 world and 52 European records. This year, both competition and enthusiasm were lacking.

Of the World Cup specifically, Tretow complained, "An increase in quantity doesn't necessarily mean the quality will be higher, and I think the fact that the swimmers have not been able to train properly has meant that now they are not in record-setting form." German stars made little splash at the Zentralbad this year. Sprinter Sandra Voelker took the time to swim a 50, be named female swimmer of the year for 1998, and then made haste for Italy a few days early-to prepare for another 50. While Voelker was not in the running for World Cup prize money, those who were often followed similar patterns, showing up sporadically to competitions where they knew they could score the maximum points.

National women's coach Achim Jedamsky agreed, saying the series was simply too long. As a host nation Germany must send swimmers to every meet, and Jedamsky tries to let a maximum number of athletes benefit from opportunity to compete internationally. Germany sent at least eight swimmers to each meet this year.

He decides which meets female swimmers will attend according to the swimmers' needs: top ranked swimmers like Voelker want as much competition as possible, whereas younger swimmers with less experience get sent to the weaker meets where their chances of a placing are better. But he says as a rule they don't try to avoid competition. "The problem is with the series over such a long time-span, one has very little feeling for its value. Athletes can dodge one another, and it will only have real worth as a series when the number of meets is reduced and the top athletes take part," he said.

Beate Ludewig, who coaches backstroker Ralf Braun in Berlin, said, "The problem with the World Cup is that the best swimmers don't take part. Or if they do, the Popovs for example, they come to one or two meets, but not all of them. Therefore the whole thing is a bit of a farce."

Ludewig's observation says it all. American sprint queen Jenny Thompson performed brilliantly at the American leg in College Station setting two world records, swooped into Sydney and Hobart for a few more record swims, and went back home to train.

Juergen Greve, promoter of the event in Germany, said the whole series had gotten out of hand. By failing to consistently attract top competitors, World Cup events would not only lose their appeal for spectators but also jeopardize their own attractiveness for television broadcasters. "It would be interesting if the number one was up against the number two," said Greve. "But what we have happening here is athletes avoiding one another, going where their main competition is not in order to score the maximum points."

As the chief responsible for the event in Germany, Greve has a good idea of what is going on. He maintains that World Cup events will soon be unaffordable for host cities. "I can tell you that in Gelsenkirchen our budget from 1997 and 1998 doubled for the 1998-99 World Cup." Not only are host federations required to send a minimum of four athletes to other meets in the series, but host cities are required to foot the bill for delegations of up to ten people from all other organizing nations. That means hotel, food, and local transport, in addition to pool costs, shuttle service, costs for FINA representatives, etc.

"Instead of looking after 70 or 80 people, we now have to look after 120 to 130," said Greve.

And the increased number of competitions has made for astronomical travel costs. German sport receives federal tax monies from the Ministry for the Interior, and swimming gets a 2-million-mark slice of the pie to cover international championships. But with so many more such championships to attend, the money is used up more and more quickly. And funds are not increasing to meet the higher bills.

As one of the leading World Cup nations, the DSV funds an average of eight top level athletes to each World Cup meet, giving priority to those who commit themselves to sticking out the whole series and attempting to win a category. Different teams are sent to different meets where possible, thereby allowing a maximum number of athletes the chance to benefit from the competition.

As proof of their presence on the circuit this year, German swimmers walked away with five category titles at US $10,000 per head: Alexander Luederitz in the sprint freestyle, Joerg Hoffmann in the distance freestyle, Stev Theloke in the backstroke, Katrin Meissner in the women's sprint freestyle, and Antje Buschschulte in the women's backstroke. Jens Kruppa (breast), Ina

Hueging (breast), and Katrin Jaeke (fly) were second in their respective categories, picking up US $5,000 each.

"But how long can it go on that the swimmers travel around endlessly and win prizes on taxpayers' money?" asked Greve. "And it's often the same swimmers who do it seriously, and they're the ones who don't deliver the goods long course." "The organizers have to decide if they're going to make the top athletes participate, or else they can just forget the whole thing," said Ludewig.

Greve talked with the other organizers in Gelsenkirchen to try and reach a consensus on what to do about the series, but he got little serious response. "It's funny," he said, "because everyone is in agreement that something needs to be done, meets have to go, but no one wants to see their competition sacrificed."

Perhaps symptomatic of the excess was the fact that the 1999 men's Individual Medley category went without a winner. According to World Cup regulations, to be eligible for prize money swimmers must earn points at a maximum of six meets in the three continental zones (Americas, Asia/Oceania, Europe).

Germany's Christian Keller finished the series the IM category leader, but the 26-year-old did not compete in the Americas zone. As it happens, not one of the top-ten scorers fulfilled the three-continent requirement.

A disappointed Keller apparently thought FINA would make an exception to the rules. Thankfully, it didn't. FINA chose instead to award no prize at all in the category, no doubt loathe to go back through the point standings and seek out the elusive eleventh-placed man.

And if you thought this year was full, just wait until next year, with short-course Europeans in December in Lisbon, a World Cup series from November to February, short-course Worlds in March in Athens, long-course Europeans in June or July, and the Olympic Games in September. Oversaturation may not only render the World Cup a series devoid of meaning, but may spell the devalorization of most other traditional highlight competitions.