In the words of Olympic and now world champion Amy van Dyken, "It wouldn't be a world championships without controversy!" While the American sprinter was referring to events at the 1994 world championships in Rome, those memories were about to be sidelined by even more dramatic happenings. Rome will always be remembered for the atmosphere of dread and suspicion surrounding the phenomenal performances of the Chinese women in the pool.
But Perth 1998 will go down in history primarily for what happened out of the water...
As the aquatic world converged on the most isolated city on the globe, temperatures soared to 45° C. But when the mercury fell back into the comfortable low 30s, the heat was still on for FINA, the parachuted hosts of the show. Even Perth's celebrated wind, the southerly "Fremantle Doctor," provided little relief for the men in suits.
As is the trend, it was the biggest championships ever with 122 countries participating, up 20 from last time. That made for 1413 participants, 709 of which were swimmers (including 81 for open water). This was supposed to be a positive thing, although it is questionable when swimmers from miniscule nations need to grasp at the lane line four times before finishing (just) two lengths. Given the number of swimmers over a minute in the men's 100 freestyle, it was clear that the beefed up statistics had nothing to do with a higher quality event, but more likely, with a few more voting delegates.
One of the biggest surprises throughout the meet was the startlingly below-capacity crowds; in a country where swimming enjoys such a high profile it was certainly disappointing, bringing the noise and excitement levels down a notch. The empty seats were no doubt due to the fact that finals tickets, at $32 for economy seats, $42 for moderate, and $52 for prime, were decidedly overpriced. Channel 7 television, on the other hand, provided extensive coverage, and was rewarded with sensational ratings of up to 44% of local viewers alone.
From a Canadian perspective, the Australian media were something to behold.
Drugs being a particularly sensitive issue after the Ekkart Arbeit hiring-firing fiasco last fall, they jumped on German Team Chef Winfried Leopold's admissions to having been involved in doping in the former East Germany. Their special brand of zeal was actually an indirect cause of Leopold's tribulations in Perth, as FINA, sadly underinformed, read the papers and acted in haste.
But the German drama had hardly run its course when it was left by the wayside, and China stepped in as the next dog to be flogged. The Germans, and anyone else for that matter, were suddenly given ample breathing room. Pages and pages, including front ones and back ones, were devoted to swimming and doping before the swimming even began. Editorials abounded and the Chinese were watched like hawks. Jingyi Le's remarkably pared down physique was noted and papers published pictures of her from 1994 to mark the contrast.
Whatever their master plan, the Chinese screwed up on all accounts, making ever more fodder for the grist mills. They were caught with human growth hormone at Sydney airport. They refused to be drug tested when official testers arrived at their hotel. They had four swimmers test positive for diuretics. And through it all, they held press conference after press conference in which they circumvented all serious questions, pleading incomprehension or simply offering a ready-made reply: "The Chinese Swimming Federation is very firm in anti-doping...we are sincerely fighting against doping usage."
Renowned Australian coach Forbes Carlile's suggestion that swimmers turn their backs when the Chinese win medals got mixed reactions as people struggled with the difficulty of taking a stand in the face of the brazen truth. Others called for the Chinese to be sent home and banned from all international swimming competitions.
FINA was in an uproar from the first spark of controversy and was ill-equipped to deal with the snapping Aussie press, who actually asked questions and, even worse, expected answers. The President and his men tried every tactic as it came to them...ignorance ("I have no official confirmation..."), which brought them grief in print; avoidance (unavailable for comment), which brought them even more; press conferences, which were usually frustratingly non-informative, and finally press releases, which were about as close as they came to actually being effective.
And as the pressure became almost unbearable, FINA (sort of) came around.
They defended their rules, and rightly so, for rules are rules, even if they are poorly adapted for certain situations. But they also made some definitive decisions: they banned the swimmers who had failed the drug tests, announced the formation of a Doping taskforce, as well as the number of Chinese swimmers that had been tested.
Which all goes to show that the "journos" and "snappers" - Aussie for journalists and photographers - were fulfilling their own prophecy. As John Leonard, Executive Director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, observed, "Six years ago we never would have dreamed that we'd have accomplished this much." Persistent pressure makes things happen, and too little too late, as many accused, was still a little gained.
Yet still so much to do and improve, and preferably before Sydney 2000, where the mob with pen and paper will be back with a vengeance, loath to let even the slightest scandal slip through their fingers.
And in the mill of it all, there were those who were there to swim. Most managed to put the many distractions aside and concentrate on the job to be done, but in seven days of competition there was not a single world record.
Australian Michael Klim was the centre of attention as he tackled 7 events, and medalled in all of them. American Jenny Thompson was the top performer on the women's side, taking home four golds and a silver, and a pile of Akubra style hats. Russian sprint Tsar Alexander Popov successfully defended his 100 freestyle title with a sub-49 second swim, but had to swallow the pill of defeat for the first time in 7 years as a jovial sprinter from Alabama, Bill Pilczuk, stole the 50. Tom Dolan also successfully defended his 400 IM title. A few of the stars of the last championships, Jignyi Le, Franziska van Almsick, and Gary hall Jr., swam only relays.
The younger generation came on like a storm with the likes of Australian distance pair Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett. Agnes Kovacs (HUN) made good on her European titles in Sevilla, winning the 200 breaststroke as predicted.
Newcomers Kristy Kowal (USA) and Roxana Maracineanu (FRA) were surprise winners that put some of the "dream come true" element back into the meet.
The Americans, with terrific performances by the women and some solid men's swims, got back to the top of the medal count with 24 in total, 14 of which were gold. Australia was next with an impressive 20 (7 gold). China showed the biggest drop with 7 in total, only 3 of them gold. Germany had a hard time, managing only one gold medal, while France and the men from the Netherlands had their best overall performances ever.
Canada's medal total of four (1 silver, 3 bronze) is up from 1994 (only one gold in open water) and shows promise. Our next match-up at Commonwealth Games in September with Australia, New Zealand and the Brits will prove a tough challenge.