Eve of Racing In Rijeka: 104 Euro Records So Far...
Dec 10, 2008 - Craig Lord
SwimNews has kept a techno tally of world records this year - 95 and counting, is the long and short of it. But as we turn our gaze towards the coastal city of Rijeka in Croatia for the last major international - the European s/c Championships - of the first year in which swimwear has contributed significantly to enhancing performance beyond expectation across an entire population of swimmers regardless of nationality or level in the sport, here are some continental stats to hold on tight to should (or when) the wave carry us on once more.
In the Olympic years of 1996, 2000 and 2004, Europe witnessed the following numbers of new continental standards:
(* - we recall that 2000 was the year that FINA gave the thumbs up to bodysuits, was challenged by Australia but was backed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which said that the international federation was within its rights to approve the use of the bodysuit (just as in 2008 there is nothing FINA can do to stop federations, colleges and other bodies from banning the bodysuit for use in their domestic waters and therefore rendering the FINA rule book a limp thing on the flagpole of standardisation, harmonisation and fair play). No question that 2000 was a significant year - a peak along the line of European record-setting trends.
And look what happened in 2008:
Gosh! Wonder how that happened?
The only thing that comes close down the years is, yes, you guessed it: the GDR. We know what happened back then (lots of talent, sports science and hard work too - steroid-assisted). We also know what's happening now (lots of talent, sports science and hard work too - technology assisted).
There will be plenty of great swimming over the coming four days of racing in Rijeka as more than 500 swimmers from 40 nations line up for battle. There are a fair few notable absentees, including some Olympic champions and medal winners, such as double gold medalists Britta Steffen and Rebecca Adlington. The show will go on – and it promises to be a fast one.
The Olympic champions of 2008 who will compete are Federica Pellegrini (ITA), Alain Bernard (FRA) and the Dutch sprint free relay quartet of Inge Dekker, Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Femke Heemskerk and Marleen Veldhuis, while Lazslo Cseh (HUN), Beijing winner of three silvers behind “the alien”, as Hungarians joke, and setter of six European records this year, has not yet returned to full training but will make a token appearance (probably a fairly swift one too...) in the backstroke events.
Cseh is not alone as taking the meet as a steady way back into things: Laure Manaudou, who lost seven European records this year, relented and decided she would race the short-course after all at the end of a woeful year for the Frenchwoman who in 2007 was on a trajectory to the firmament but fizzled out via an Italian holiday of her own making.
Some teams in Rijeka, such as Britain and Germany, are fielding squads made up largely of developing talent, others, such as Italy, are just about full strength.
It will not be easy – nor desirable – to avoid mentioning the suits. It will be much more pleasant, of course, to point out the skills, talents, swimmer-coaching relationships that contribute much to performance. Many look forward to a time when the suit counts so little beyond image, comfort, durability, flexibility and those other important factors that the work of all involved in the achievements of athletes and coaches is not unnecessarily diminished.
The number of world and continental (and national) standards set this year has borrowed too much from the circus and too little from the traditional values of the sport of swimming this year. More relevant to nations trying to access where they fit in the swimming league is to judge how far a national record is behind the best of the continent and the rest of the world. In many cases, swimmers who have taken an axe to their best times in a speedy suit, are not a stroke closer to the podium or the winner. In some extraordinary cases, there are, as one world champion put it “swimmers winning medals who would be out of it altogether if it wasn’t for the suit and the support they’re getting from it”, while there are many obvious examples of swimmers who at the start of 2008 were in line for the Olympic podium but, although they improved on the clock, found themselves overtaken by people who were ranked outside the top 10 and even top 25 at the dawn of 2008.
Right and proper to look forward to racing in Rijeka. Right and proper too to look forward to a time when technology plays a much more minimal role in a sport that can do without artificial propulsion of any kind, from any source. Right and proper to look forward to a time when contracts and trust and faith between suit makers, coaches and swimmers do not get washed down the gutter, to a time when the swimming world is not so torn apart by events such as those that have dominated the agenda since February 2008. Right and proper to look forward to a time when we don't approach a championship with leading coaches calling for one particular suit or another to be banned because the rule book has failed them and their sport and changed the nature of winning in the pool. Right and proper to look forward to a time when schism is not part of the lexicon of LEN, of FINA, of federations and programmes, of suit makers.
None of that will happen by turning a blind eye, hoping the problem will go away, denying that there is a problem. Actions speak louder than words and by early next year, LEN, the European nations that form more than a quarter of FINA, should have come to a view on what to do about hi-tech suits and post-Feb 2008 technology. Throughout swimming history, LEN has often led the world of swimming when it has come to innovation, change and response to moments of crisis. There has never been a better time than now for Europe to take a stand.
Little point in looking back in anger. Or looking back at all - except to lear from mistakes made. What's done is done. The next four days in Rijeka should be celebrated - but when the decorations have been set back in their post-party boxes, resolutions for a better 2009 should be made in earnest by all those who profess to governing a sport that has risked much in the past year. The USA has seen the light, some nine other leading federations have let it be known that they are at one with that movement, Australia will come to a view next week. Is Europe a player too in the leadership of swimming? Has it got the power to make a difference? We will know the answer soon enough.
2008 has skewed the history of the sport in breadth and depth like no other. Here's a tip-of-the-iceberg snapshot from the helm of the show in one continent [record at start of 2008 in square brackets]:
EUROPEAN RECORDS SET IN 2008
Many thanks to Nick Thierry, SwimNews publisher and world rankings guru for the past 30 years and more, and to PPS Cosmos, Germany, for helping to keep score with me.