It was a jovial FINA director Cornel Marculescu who appeared on the pool deck at the end of day two here in Dubai and said with three fingers in the air and a rye smile on his face: "They said it would be 10 years ... now there are three, three...".
Thank the aquatic gods that its not 43 (the number of a Roman circus) - for three is surely a bigger number.
World records in 2010 that is. All short-course, of course (no 50m pool big ones this first season of post-poly textile), and impressive though the relays of China and Russia were over 4x200m freestyle, that the best times we'd ever seen could fall had never been in doubt (there are records and then there are records, including some that a fair few at the helm of FINA will not outlive).
Also worth noting: it always has been the wish of the vast majority to witness world records - with one caveat: that part of the very reason to celebrate is because uncharted waters, at their best, reflect the hard and smart work and talent of coaches, and nothing beyond that is worth making a song and dance about.
Where Ryan Lochte's 3:55.50 long medley sits along the spectrum of breakability we shall have to see but suffice it to say that the American's performance, the way it unfolded, the tangible determination of a supreme athlete, was worth singing and dancing about. If his efforts were spectacular, the pursuit of him by Oussama Mellouli and Tyler Clary represented fabulous sporting theatre.
The curtain came down today with a riot of applause for a Russian relay from a stand occupied almost exclusively by swimmers, coaches and others attached to teams. The paying public has stayed away. Pity that they missed some classic battles in a fine arena.
There are tighter less classy venues that would have produced bigger and certainly more knowledgeable crowds. The argument leans towards chicken and egg. If leading swim nations don't bid, they won't host, but if FINA doesn't make the package affordable and worthwhile, then leading nations won't bid and swimming will forever be in a desert when it comes to spectators beyond those who watch on the small screen, the deals and the fate of a sport left to marketeers and merchandisers.
The debate will go on. So will a show that is at its best when untainted by sideline troubles and doubts that are largely in the hands of the FINA ruling class. As Cesar Cielo put it - his goggles focussed on the only thing that matters, the very point of all this - after watching Lochte's medley mania: "That was sick! I can't even do that on freestyle. I don't know what to say, that guy is amazing. We're just blessed to swim in an era where we have Michael Phelps, Lochte and so many good guys."
Lochte managed a pumped fist but he left the fancy stuff in the water, admiration for him all the greater for it. More to come too, predicted Natalie Coughlin, who said of Lochte's world mark: "I didn't doubt it. Ryan has been swimming awesome all year. I think he's just going to continue to surprise people the rest of the meet."
He surprised again soon after with a stunning relay split (see the race reports for details) and though the sum of parts is all and the quartet of Nikita Lobintsev, Danila Izotov, Evgeny Lagunov and Alexander Sukhorukov rightly took the final curtain on a second day that produced three golds for Russian, the Lochte Circus is only just warming up. His tally is now a record 18 medals at world s/c championships ... and counting. Jenny Thompson (USA) won 17, so Lochte's is now in uncharted waters on the prize count.
"I didn’t feel so good until the 200m, and then I start to feel myself again," said Lochte at his press conference. "Every year, people get faster and WRs are made to be beaten, so it’s just a question of time." Time too for US to try to turn around some disappointments that became the topic of conversation at the team meeting at the first global championships without Mark Schubert at the helm as head coach.
Schubert was on the team plane coming to Dubai, however, and is in town as a member of the coaches commission that advises FINA on many an issue affecting the sport, including athlete's rights, the topic of a day-long meeting of athletes, coaches and open water specialists here in Dubai. We await news from that gathering when decisions have been taken.
Meanwhile, one of the issues that never goes away is doping, and FINA faces criticism over a decision not to undertake any blood testing here in Dubai. To be clear, blood tests are not the holy grail of anti-doping campaigns and can be hellishly expensive and more needs to be done by doping experts working with FINA and FINA itself to bring clarity to the subject, particularly when we hear that the blood testing was called off because of logistical reasons.
To be a little more specific, the conditions, the numbers of experts available to handle samples, the distance of the venue from the rest of the locality, presented a problem. FINA has promised to field an anti-doping expert at one of its press conferences to explain what's what on the blood line.
Not good enough, say critics from Gazzetta dello Sport to the DPA agencies in Germany reporting the unhappy words of athletes and cooaches, including the likes of Paul Biedermann and Britta Steffen (more of that tomorrow). They are backed by DSV head Christa Thiel who went on the record today, albeit politely in the manner of the body politic, to say that FINA need to come under more pressure to step up a commitment to blood testing in 2011. All the more important against the backdrop of news from Spain of raids on blood doping programmes that go well beyond the world of road cycling.
If there are reasons why blood is not the best solution and programmes in which blood testing could help, more information needs to be shared. And before it is, there is always the weight of threat to consider when dealing with would-be cheats and cheats: the message that anti-doping campaigns will stop at nothing to stop the rot is fundamental to the war on those who work in the shadows and in the process taint the innocent along with the guilty.
Back to the race pool - the medals after day two
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