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Quality Time Could Go A Long Way

May 28, 2012  - Craig Lord


The case for Europe returning to a four-year cycle or at least shifting its event to a slot where the best are able to turn up and race at peak, in keeping with the pattern for the Pan Pacific Championships, became all the more compelling over seven days of mixed bag challenges last week at the continental showcase in Debrecen, Hungary. 

In an analysis of the world rankings he compiles, Nick Thierry, SwimNews founder, married results in Debrecen to the 2012 European rankings and found that of the 104 top eight places across all 13 solo Olympic events for men 54 are occupied by people who did not show up for the continental challenge. Among women the figure is 42.

The men's 200m medley was the only event in which the top three in Debrecen are actually the best three in Europe, while among women, all barring two events in Debrecen failed to get more than one woman in the continental top 3. Not a single victory at the Euro championships managed to topple the best European performance of the year.

Some maintain that none of that is a problem. It is what it is. I beg to differ on a number of levels, the most important among them the impact that political decisions have on athletes. 

I watched the main evening news in Germany on Sunday evening and listened as the nation was told that its swimmers had celebrated their best outing at a Euro champs since a home meet in Berlin back in 2002. London 2012 here we come - let the good times roll.

No mention was made as to why the numbers of medals was so high. While the swimmers, their coaches, you the swimming reader and audience will know how to interpret the events that unfolded (and know that the likes of Biedermann and Steffen are likely to have another gear or two to show yet but will do so in waters where many will have another gear), the wider public, including politicians and others who stick their hand in the air and vote for budgets and financing - and do so now at a time of tightness - will not.

What they will see is what the TV station reflected: cheers as great as expectations. There may well be medals in the mix for Germany but its team, in common with any nation at that level has a tough call ahead. All the tougher for the current generation in a German context  when you take into account the might of the measuring stick,  Michael Gross to the right, and to the left the incomparable enhanced efforts of the GDR that were adopted by the swim federation in Germany after the fall of the Wall.

The context of history, of events, is lost on the wider public, the nuance of such things a thought too far in busy lives stacked with distractions deemed far more important than swimming by vast numbers of those who will skim the surface as they tune in to swimming this summer. The headlines will reflect some of that, the expectation of the taxpaying public, no matter how daft the exercise (including media counting the cost of medals, per head and coming up with figures in the millions "just for a bronze or worse") may be.

The hosts this year in London know a little about such things as they head into a home Games, expectations for what the Olympic folk themselves have dubbed "Our Greatest Team" even before a stroke has been swum, a hop hopped, a skip skipped and a jump jumped, on the greater side of great. Some swim facts:

In Athens 2004, two bronze medals won by two swimmers in the race pool  and more finalists than ever before was written up as a big disappointment just four years after Britain emerged from Sydney 2000 with no medals for the first time since a post-war Games marked by rationing and making the best job of a world saved from the putrid, festering hand of Nazism but still in rehab in 1948.

Four years on from Athens and two golds for Becky Adlington and a bronze for Jo Jackson (two swimmers, three medals) was written up as a great success, not least because those fine results came alongside two silvers and a bronze in the inaugural marathon, the six medals often compared as a "huge advance" for Britain when it fact only three of the medals formed part of the thread of history up to that point.

A fine line between two medal from two swimmers one Games and three medals from two swimmers the next, one that reflects the delicate nature of the task at hand.

At London 2012, Britain would like six medals again but could get a maximum of two in open water this time round. A tally of 5 or 6 medals in the race pool would be the finest result Britain has ever had in the Olympic pool yet in some quarters there would be references to "no better than Beijing" alongside the damp feel of disappointment.

Any who lived through the days of Athens and Beijing and all the world titles along the way know well the fragile nature of medal tallies: what a whole team of strength can achieve can be topped by a nation with just the one super talent; while no-one remembers stats such as five fourth places and more finalists than ever before, even though such things are part of the journey of lasting, long-term strength in sport. 

Right now, federations, international and domestic (for it is the delegates domestic who stick their hand in the air when international duty calls) are wedded to "growth" but their idea of what that means is far removed from the practicalities of preparing world-class athletes for long-term success on the biggest of occasions. Too much quantity and not enough quality has been the mantra of an era that started with LEN upping the ante in the late 1990s when it inflated its programme and the frequency of its gatherings.

There have been some successes but chickens are also coming home to roost as general financial austerity coincides with big-event fatigue among those who have their eye on the biggest prizes of all and believe the best way to get what they want means avoiding what used to be a given among the fastest fish in Europe: continental honours were among the top three highlights of a career, next to olympic and world honours. No longer. 

Time to think again? Yes, say some in blazers but swimmers and coaches need to think again, not we who know best. Sponsors and media are largely sceptical, if only because the product has been devalued - and is thus all the harder to sell.

The powers that be need to think the way of Edward de Bono: laterally. But while they do so, they ought not to forget to look at what is already in the sport: some things rejected as retrograde may actually be better than the thing that replaced them. 

Take Pan Pacs:  four days, no semis, heats and finals - fast furious and a fraction of the cost of a major championship but with results that can hold their head up to any continental or regional championship and Games. It may be too modest for those who have become used to the 10-day to two-week touring circus but the times they are a-changin', the costs and competition for attention in a world of distractions, not only in sport but in virtual pursuits galore, often headed in the opposition direction to resources. 

In 2016, Britain intends to host the event in London at the Olympic pool, possibly in May, as the world prepares for Rio. If it does, it will field a big team but its policy is unlikely to be "priority" and certainly not "peak": even a home championships will be a stepping stone, as you might expect in Olympic season.

Can you imagine Wimbledon, the US Open, the World Series and so on and so forth being described as stepping stones? Of course not - they're the time and place where the mighty gather for battle and the world tunes in - regularly, every year, not just once every four years. 

FINA and many leading lights from LEN and other leading bodies around the world will meet for a World Aquatic Convention in Moscow October 29 to November 1. Some in the sport have already offered thoughts on some of the issues at hand, including the likes of Bill Sweetenham.

A leading official once said to my colleague Karin Helmstaedt that he was sick of white wine and nuts. Caviar and champagne is what he craved in the world of swimming. 

Whatever the next grand design may be (and pray spare us the mixed relay as a sign of salvation fit to have the congregation setting up their tent outside the pools of the world) space should be set aside on the foundation stone for the words "quality begets quality".