Sunday, November 23, 2008

Short-course thinking

Swimming Australia’s decision, in conjunction with its new broadcast partner Ten, to compress the 2009 Australian Swimming Championships from eight into six days of competition, is a risky move.

Like the United States, Australia traditionally holds the national titles over the same eight-day schedule as the Olympics and the World Championships. This allows the swimmers to test themselves under the conditions that they will face on the global stage.

The powers that be cited marketability as the reason for the change, hoping that a more condensed campaign would enhance sales and advertising for the national titles and focus more attention on the marquee races and key battles. However, this myopic planning risks doing far more harm than good to the cause of Australian swimming.

In terms of spectators and television viewing, swimming is not major sport in Australia. It only receives prominent media coverage twice a year, the Australian trials and the subsequent major international competition for the year. Apart from
the handful of athletes who manage the lofty feats of winning gold on the global arena, Australia’s swimmers are generally incognito among the wider public. Earlier in the year, the Australian Championships were held in a predominantly empty stadium, watched mainly by the athletes’ inner circle-their family and close friends. The television interest was similarly poor, as the public was demonstrably only interested when the Dolphins landed in Beijing to compete for the green and gold.

It is folly to assume that the public would be better able to maintain their interest in the trials if the races were crammed into a shorter window. If hardly anyone is interested in the first place, as is manifestly and unfortunately the case, then there is no interest to maintain. The most anticipated races at the trials will be the women’s sprint freestyle events, featuring Libby Trickett, Cate Campbell and Jodie Henry, and the 100 m butterfly, featuring Trickett and Jessicah Schipper. The other events are either David vs Goliath mismatches, or involve swimmers who lack the profile to attract the attention of the general public.

In the United States, collegiate swimmers compete regularly in NCAA competition, allowing them many opportunities to hone their racecraft not only against American swimmers, but many leading international swimmers who train under the university system. No analogous series of competition exist in Australia, nor is there the same depth of competition. All the more reason to make the most of every opportunity to race, especially considering that some of Australia’s swimmers have had dubious track records where racecraft is concerned.

Heading into the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Australia was ranked #1 in eight events, but went away with only two golds. Michael Klim missed the final of the 200 m freestyle after trying to conserve energy in the heats; Scott Goodman was ranked first in the 200 m butterfly but was visibly nervous and came third. In 2000, five golds were netted when eight or nine were expected. More recently, Leisel Jones’ pre-2005 inability to reproduce her fastest times in finals have been well documented, while Libby Trickett broke the 100 m freestyle world record at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic trials only to find herself unable to find similar speed at the Olympics; she was twice eliminated in the semifinals but was given a reprieve in Beijing due to another swimmer’s disqualification for a false start. After his defeat to Alain Bernard in the 100 m freestyle, Eamon Sullivan rued having swum Bernard’s race, rather than his own.

As one does in practice, so one does in competition, and the trials are not only a competition in its own right, it is a dress rehearsal for a global competition. The swimmers can trial their program and see if it is manageable with the given scheduling. Based on the results, alterations can be made to allow for better performance on the world stage. However, by trialling in different conditions, there will be a greater element of guesswork required.

No Formula One team would go and test and setup their car at Albert Park, and then turn up in Italy and use the same configuration at Monza. So upon arriving in Monza, they would have to tinker before getting the correct setup. The same applies here. By simulating at home what one will confront in future, a more effective preparation results.

By condensing the program, swimmers attempting to qualify in multiple events will be disadvantaged by smaller recovery times. This is likely to encourage swimmers to drop events they perceive to be weaknesses to shore up selection in pet events as scheduling clashes become more prevalent. Only a few swimmers of brilliant calibre such as Michael Phelps can swim multiple finals and semifinals in one session effectively. This will result in Australia’s stronger swimmers being underemployed once they arrive in Rome for the World Championships, facing longer rest periods between races that no longer clash.

By not giving Australia’s athletes the best chance to win in an attempt to harness short-term gain, swimming stands to lose much more. The hoopla surrounding Ian Thorpe’s remarkable feat at age 14 in becoming the youngest male to gain selection for Australia was microscopic in comparison to the media frenzy that erupted when Thorpe made the most of his selection and became the youngest male to become world champion. Scores of lucrative sponsorship deals resulted. A more recent illustration is that of Australian swimming’s glamour couple, Stephanie Rice and Eamon Sullivan. Both broke two world records at the trials, which, coupled with their tabloid-fodder status, made them targets for underwear endorsements. However, when it came to Beijing, Sullivan was set two world records in the relay lead-off and semifinals, but was narrowly toppled in the final. On the other hand, Rice triumphed in to double gold in the individual medley, setting world records in both. On the surface, the difference between two gold and one silver is stark. But below the surface, there was little difference in the quality of the performances, as Rice had scraped home by a slender 0.15% in each race. But the difference in the ramifications could not have been starker. Rice carried the flag at the closing ceremony and became the darling of Australia, swamped by a multitude of media and sponsorship deals, whereas Sullivan was largely forgotten. To add to the impact it has on the public psyche, international success also determines the amount of government funding that is awarded.

The imagery generated by gold medals inspire the next generation of champions to take up the sport. Without exception, the current golden girls in Australia’s dominant women’s team cite Susie O’Neill and Sam Riley as their role models. It’s inevitable that the next generation will similarly be inspired by the likes of Rice, thereby driving an expansion in the sport. But such catalytic triumphs don’t come easily in the fierce world of competitive swimming, with a razor-thin margin separating champions and also-rans. Australia’s athletes need as much help as they can get, and the decision to place the marketability of the selection trials won’t do their hard work the justice it deserves. In the end, swimming in Australia stands to incur a greater penalty if their performance is hit.

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