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Phelps And The Future Of Swimming

May 8, 2012  - Craig Lord

Much talk of London 2012 marking the retirement of the greatest Olympian in history, Michael Phelps, after the swimmer told the US TV show 60 Minutes: "Once I retire, I'm retiring. I'm done."

It might be wiser to talk in terms of London being only his Olympic swan song, however, if FINA plans for a professional circuit that would lift the sport and its stars into a new financial league come to fruition.

SwimNews understands that work is in progress to get such a circuit off the ground in time to catch the Phelps vs Lochte wave well ahead of Rio 2016. While Phelps's 60 Minutes interview appeared to close the door on his mother's hope of a trip to Rio in 2016, a road show including fat fees for the two US giants of the race pool and others at the very pointy end of the sport, would be the kind of promotion for swimming that Phelps would be willing to sign up to, according to American sources.

"He'll carry on swimming for a while after London if the conditions are right," one reliable source told SwimNews. August 4 this year may well be the end of it all, of course. And who could blame him if it was...

Meanwhile, FINA's executive director Cornel Marculescu has been keen to set up a professional circuit, one that may replace the current World Cup, for some years now. The time would be ripe in the period between London 2012 and Rio 2016 to have a pro-tour rise from the ashes of the current calendar chaos. 

That there is a mood for change in the swimming community has been obvious for some time, with suggestions for how swimming copuld improve its offer to a wider audience coming from several quarters at a time when federations appear bent on adding to the heap with no consideration for the need to clear out the clutter. 

European body LEN succumbed of late to the pressure of FINA having moved its world s/c championships to a regular December slot and reduced its own continental winter s/c showcase from an annual affair to a championship held every two years instead. At the same time it voted to add mixed relays to its race schedule even though there is no official recognition of such things in FINA rules (just as there is no official recognition for 4x50km relays, which have resulted in myriad calls to world records for years now, even though there are no world records over 4x50m). 

Bodies such as LEN and FINA were created to champion standardisation yet today those involved in the running of both organisations prefer to challenge the notion and substance of standardisation by ad-hoc votes too often held before proper discussion and debate has taken place in the forum that counts when it comes to organising world swimming: FINA. History tells us why LEN sometimes goes about its business in that fashion: it is successful, some of the shape-changing decisions taken at continental level later adopted by the international federation. 

As FINA now considers the merits of a pro-tour, it ought also to take into account the wider discussion going on in the swimming world. In his latest newsletter to Australian coaches, Bill Sweetenham, who organises regular meetings of the leaders of all Olympic sports Down Under, calls on the swim community to consider change and be open to it.

Sweetenham writes: "I believe world swimming is at a crossroads. Even the greatest supporter of the World Cup concept knows unconditionally that the 'use-by' date arrived several years ago. The World Cups have had their time and they were very productive when all nations were enthused about them in their early years of operation. However, they have grown tired with all countries taking a different approach to them with many different levels of athlete and in various states of preparedness. The only advantage World Cups now offer is that they can be a tool for coaches and athletes to gain experience in performing fast in heats. Given that most do not take this opportunity they need to be removed but more importantly, replaced with something better."

Nor do the World Short-Course Championships truly cut the mustard, Sweetenham believes. They are, he assert, "rarely if ever taken seriously by the world's best athletes and/or the world's best teams", in part because the event had long been used as a chance to "blood" young athletes, a trend itself knocked by "the opportunity to blood new athletes in an over-crowded (and many of them questionable) amount of meets in terms of number of options with the many global youth meets". 

Where do we go from here, and what do we do to take our sport forward, asks Sweetenham. 

He considers the case of cricket in Australia, the sport having had to reinvent itself "about every seven years". Say Sweetenham: "Re-inventing and re-branding every six to eight years is an extremely successful corporate model".

Swimming has been slow to buy into "the concept of being part of the entertainment industry". Sports that had "embraced the combination of the business world and entertainment world now enjoy by far and away the largest share of the world media exposure and as such have a dominant possession of national and global sponsorship opportunities". 

Sweetenham then screams the danger in the midst of his argument that "Swimming desperately needs to embrace all of the above". The importance of the two major events in swimming, the Olympic Games and FINA World Long-Course Championships, was compromised by the "introduction of the greatly enhanced high tech racing costumes …  this easy option appealed to many who still pay the price for seeking shortcuts".

He asks his readers whether they feel such booster apparel and the skew of such suits will make it back into the sport at some point, particularly if commercial interests in favour of such things hold sway in the shaping of the sport. That would be the wrong way to go, Sweetenham suggests.

He points to a second danger: "… the overwhelming embracing of the anaerobic or reverse-cycle periodisation approach to training all types of athletes". He explains: "This increased volume and intensity of short distance, high intensity and very specific race speed and race pace training exposure has delivered many benefits to the sprint fraternity of world swimming but at a massive cost to the performance of 200 metre and up events on national and international scenes."

Sweetenham concludes: "Without being disrespectful to any coach or any athlete, we have got it wrong. We don't want the new suits.  The vast majority of coaches and athletes are trying to prepare the world's best swimmers for 200 metre and up events using enhanced costumes and sprint based and anaerobic approach type training for endurance based athletes. Coaches across the world continually tell me that the Y generation athlete of today is unwilling to do "the work" required for endurance based performance."

He begs to differ and notes that he watched the Australian Olympic Trials in March "with several mixed emotions". Former mentor to Tracy Wickham, whose world championship 400m free record stood from 1978 to 2007, and coach too to Olympic champion Michelle Ford in Moscow, Sweetenham added: "In the women's 800 freestyle, I thought back to 1977 and 1978 where I coached two young ladies who would have placed first and second in this event at these 2012 Trials. 

"Not only did these two people not enjoy any type of government or national body funding, they had to pay for everything themselves, they wore nylon costumes, very ordinary cork type lane lines, no sports science or sports medicine, very poor nutritional advice, and understood that recovery was something you did in hospital after a major operation. 

"They had no training or competition biomechanical analysis. They thought that lactate was something found in milk but they did have great attitude, tremendous work ethic, kicked adversity and excuses out of the training environment on a daily basis, and understood that psychologists were for people living in nut farms. They produced excellence, character and attitude in massive doses on a daily basis. 

"As a coach and trainer, I understood that I was personally accountable and responsible for their strength and conditioning, their psychology, their skills and technique and their well-being. We trained exceptionally hard and none of them had sore shoulders or injuries.  Yes, we have moved on professionally in many areas but without retaining many of the positive and significant attributes and values of the past."

He notes that he also coached a boy back in those early days who would have won the 1500m at recent trials with a time from 30-plus years ago, the haunt of Sun Yang and Chinese teammates prepared in Australian - on the foundation of a strong work ethic shaped by cultural norms under threat in the west these days and not only in sport - to a point beyond the scope of the current generation in that country unmentioned but hanging heavy in the air. 

Sweetenham reflects on the fact that at the Australian age-group championships this year many in the 14-15 group were faster than the 16-17 year olds. There is a need, he says, to "re-commit to the values of dedicated, committed and 'measured' endurance work and 'skilled' aerobic work whilst embracing as well the new developments for sprint based swimmers of anaerobic work". 

He then returns to his main point. "Will this talent and commitment be polluted by the re-introduction of new suits and compromised preparation at world long course and Olympic level? What will our competition and athletes look in 2024?"

Sweetenham's recommendation is clear: "The appropriate events contained within the Olympics and the World Long Course Championships be preserved as sacred and never be compromised due to performance enhanced costumes or drugs (blood doping etc.) and/or compromised coaching which seeks easy options from inappropriate training application to all athletes. I want my grandchildren to be able to join a programme which continues to teach and respect the values of dedication, commitment and hard work without the temptation of shortcuts. I want this to be the main reward that they achieve for being part of the competitive swimming environment."

World swimming, he urges, "must embrace a corporate and entertainment opportunity and re-invent the World Cups and World Short Course Championships to a world series type event which provides opportunity for events not covered in the Olympic or World Long Course format such as 1,000 metre distance. 

"This means removing for these competitions only, the 800 Freestyle for women and 1500 Freestyle for men and replacing them with 1000 metre events for both. This world series should include 4X50 Freestyle and medley relays and the 100 IM. These events should vary across a 3 or 4 world series competition format conducted with only a couple of days between them and it could be based on a limited entry format and on a team points score rather than individual gold medals. 

"It could address an A Final and a B Final, rather than a semi-final. Countries could change 4 or 5 swimmers at any of the series in order to address the format. The USA could be divided into an East Coast team and a West Coast team. This would provide a great domestic competition for them. It would also even up the competition for the rest of the world."

He emphasises that his initial suggestions for change in swimming "may not be the answer" but calls for debate to rage and decisions to be taken. "We desperately need change and a new stimulus so put your thinking caps on and challenge your lateral thinking. Ask the athletes what they think? They have great ideas and we should listen."

Sweetenham closes with a hope: that his letter "stimulates, challenges and encourages progressive thinking". 

FINA should give the man a call and get him to a table - alongside representatives of the World Swimming Coaches Association and related bodies such as the American Swimming Coaches Association - as it considers the next move, the balance between holding hands with corporate backers and maintaining a keen sense of responsibility to the sport of swimming and the well-being of the athletes who flow it paramount.

Shaping the future purely on politics and money, particularly in the current world climate, will no longer do. The FINA director Marculescu has long sought to balance such things, his record of having overseen a massive sea-change in the professionalisation of the sport and the financial rewards available to the chief protagonists, the swimmers, one of the big lines written into the book of swimming history these past 30 years. 

The suits decision of 2009, the USA at the helm of the move to set things right, offers evidence of how FINA as the world body in charge of the show, understands well the need to keep the beauty and unique nature of swimming alive regardless of the temptations of a fat wallet, real or, as was the case with shiny suits, false. 

In one respect, FINA remains out of synch with its parish: performances are perceived and talked of far and wide in the sport in terms of "textile bests", the need to do that as obvious as the world being round was to those who believed Galileo. The thread of swimming history was severed. There was a way of mending it in quick time. If the current mindset prevails, the world of swim times will remain apparently flat for a while yet.

Phelps, Lochte, and the likes of their respective coaches Bob Bowman and Gregg Troy, are examples of getting that balance right. Their successes in the pool, in life and in terms of the managers who work with them and the sponsorship commitment and financial rewards that came about as a result of their talent and dedication to honouring that talent, serve as role models for the future of the sport.

On 60 Minutes, Phelps told the audience: "I've been able to go to all these amazing cities in my travels and I haven't been able to see them at all. I see the hotel and I see the pool. That's it. And (after the Olympics) I'm just going to go and do whatever I want to do."

That may include a role in a future Pro-Tour, either as a swimmer or a figurehead and promoter. Debbie Phelps may yet get her wish of being in Rio in 2016 - but the seat next to her will not only be filled by her daughter but her son too. "We'll go watch," said Phelps of Rio. "Once I retire, I'm retiring. I'm done."

Bowman put it at 50-50 when it came to Phelps making it to London 2012.  "It was hard, because I didn't know if the passion or the fire was still inside of me," Phelps told the programme. "And it took awhile for me to actually realise it myself. Bob couldn't tell me, my mom couldn't tell me. They couldn't help me find it."

He found it and is now in line to make the US team once more, an honour that automatically makes him a gold-medal contender once more. How many would he get, Bowman was asked. "I don't know," said the maestro. "That's up to him."

It always has been - and the rate of delivery has been like no other in history, regardless of what unfolds in London 2012.