The last morning of prelims at the world s/c champiuonships are underway in Dubai, with Oussama Mellouli, Olympic champion, racing in the second heat of three slow heats of the 1,500m because the Tunisian federation did not submit the results of its national championships, held in the last week of 2009, to FINA. He set the target for those who will race this evening at a pace that the rest of the field could scarcely comprehend: 14:24.16, inside his controversial and rejected entry time.
An African record, the time is also 4th best ever by a swimmer in a textile suit - see the all-time top 5 across all events here - pressing the stunning 1994 effort of Kieren Perkins (AUS) - 14:26.52 - down to 6th all-time.
The US-based ace was for a while showed in lane 4 for the evening heat on Omega's start list, at the same time as he appeared in heat 2 in the morning slowest prelims on an entry time of 15:11.21, a long-course time.
As he stepped up to his blocks, Mellouli may have taken comfort in the fact that morning had shifted to afternoon, courtesy of Jackson Niyomugabo, of Rwanda, entered in heat 1 in a time of 18:05.08. No idea where that came from but suffice it to say that the likelihood of it being bogus is extreme. At 400m, he split in a time slower than Henry Taylor (GBR) held the world 400m record back in 1908 when FINA was born. Just after 800m gone form the rest, he was 300m off the pace. At the point where Grant Hackett (AUS) would have set his world mark of 14:10, Jackson had 23 laps to go and was 20 laps off the pace of the leaders in the heat.
Dai Jun (CHN) clocked 14:53.80 with Cristian Qunitero (VEN) on 14:58.50, at which point our man in the slow lane had 21 laps to go. He stopped at 59 laps and had a chat with an official, who indicated that he had two lengths to go. The clock stopped at 23:27.92, slower than the first three home at the 1908 Olympic Games, where Taylor established the first official world mark at 22:48.4 for gold.
Next up to the block came Mellouli, racing for gold in a pool of his own. The absence of a short-course entry time of 14:24.71 or any other time in the past 12 months (the eligibility period of entries to the championships here) on any official register of rankings with FINA prompted questions to be raised about Mellouli's place in lane 4 in the fastest line-up that races in one of only two heat-declared winner races (women's 800m free is the other) on the programme.
That the blame for this lies with Mellouli's own federation and its failure to file official times for consideration when it comes to qualification to FINA events is beyond doubt but the case raises some serious issues.
Mellouli raced the 200 and 400m free and the 400m medley here entered with times from the same December meet in Tunisia last December. No-one raised any objection. The view for the 1,500m was that Mellouli would be denying another swimmer qualification to the best eight showdown and therefore all things must be above board. Disappointing as it might have been for Heerden Heeman (RSA), on 14:53.16, to have to swim this morning, more disappointing is the absence of the Olympic champion in the last eight.
The last man into the final if Mellouli were to race this evening is Gergely Gyurta (HUN) on 14:46.39. Young Gyurta's federation would surely have had a unique perspective on the problems of entry times. After all, a few years ago it made up a whole virtual championship to justify its Olympic Games selection, we recall.
Back in the swim, his local Tunisian expat fan club drumming him on in a frenzy of the loudest crown noise made all week, Mellouli pressed on to a 7:38.95 split at 800m, 7.59sec outside Hackett's world-record pace but inside the championshop-record pace of 7:41.71 established by Yuri Prilukov (RUS) in 2008. He lost the pace about 200m from the end, turning into his last lap at the time Hackett at best would have been finishing.
The storm of it all reeling about him, Mellouli handled it all brilliantly. Post-race he went through the file of interviews in Arabic, French, English and Italian. A perfect ambassador for himself, his family, nation, programme back home at USC in California with Dave Salo, and the sport of swimming. Asked why some entry times were accepted here but others not when all were clocked at the same meet, he smiled, shrugged and said: I'm not even gonna comment. I don't even want to know. I just want to put this behind me."
The point of all that he did was fulfilling the role he has grown into so gracefully: leadership. "I've been eight years at USC and I have some kind of image, a role in leadership. The rule is to lead by example."
The African record he had just set might be good enough for gold. "Maybe Federico Colbertaldo can get there, we'll have to wait and see," said Mellouli, who looked forward to watching from the stands. Asked if it had been hard to race alone, he laughed and said: "It's a lot of fun.... no, not really, it is hard. It's especially hard going to bed the night before thinking about it, with everyone around you talking about it all, hard to get in the right place, hard to get your head round it and think just about what you have to do, managing the situation in your head. It's a lot of pressure. It is not ideal but you have to make the most of it."
he was delighted with results at the end of the year that reflected the hard work he's put in. "I've worked hard and its paid off. There are a lot of people out there who work hard but don't get the results they wanted. It doesn't always work out. I'm extremely happy with the way I've swum at these championships, with the conditions, the fantastic pool and the great support I've received form the fans who turned up for me."
Closest to him this morning were Peter Vanderkaay (USA), on 14:35.25 and his Tunisian teammate Ahmed Mathlouthi (TUN), on 14:43.25, both racing in the last of three 'morning' heats (it was almost 1pm when it all came to a close).
The Mellouli issue raises other questions, such as:
Should an Olympic champion in form be forced to race in a relative little league of rivals in a morning heat that deprives him of the best race conditions and potentially deprives the championships of watching a 1,500m 'final', the race that will be broadcast around the world, in which the winner takes gold?
Should the rule be changed in a way that forces the federation that fell down to pay a financial penalty or face other punishment for failing to do the right thing but does not penalise the athlete (and in this case an in-form Olympic champion)?
Should Mellouli go down in history as a man who prompted a change in the rule book that allows wild-card entries to events for big title holders at any time during a two-year world titles cycle or an four-year Olympic cycle?
Meantime, Dubai is serving to reshape the status of nations in the race pool. Four world marks, two in solo events to Ryan Lochte (USA) sit at the helm of many new standard at national and continental level. Chief among those statistics is the tally for Asian standards: 22 new marks, all but one by Chinese swimmers. A fascinating development. Whether through natural or deliberate talent selection or a combination of both in a system that pumps thousands of kids through its sports machine each year, China has a new generation of big title-chasers on its hands and many of them are in their teens or just leaving their teens and are built tall, lean and lanky.
In the 1990s, we were told to expect great things from China because the numbers game would inevitably throw up exceptional talent and success. That take on things turned out to be bogus. Doping is what did it, without a shadow of a doubt. But things have changed and this generation no longer arrives at the blocks looking like something that Tolkien dreamt up from the slime. They are lithe, athletic and boast a spectrum of skills, some superb, some in need of improvement.
The progress being witnessed is exceptional in some quarters and as Shanghai prepares to host the pre-Olympic-year world long-course championships in July 2011, the world watches yet with interest and hope in its heart that China is wedded to clean sport and prepared to stop at nothing to protect its children and fair play in the race pool.
Men's 200m backstroke
The last five or so slow-motion free-frame strokes of Lochte's 1:50.25 passage into lane 4 for the final were something to behold. For those who hadn't yet woken up on the last morning of heats here in Dubai, they might well have done a double take and wondered whether the warm-up was still in progression.
Next up in the last of seven heats, the favourite's teammate, Tyler Clary, booked lane 5 for this evening's showdown in 1:50.82. The other side of Lochte will be Aschwin Wildeboer (ESP), on 1:51.63 this morning. In the mix Markus Rogan (AUT), Ryosuke Irie (JPN), Radoslaw Kawecki (POL), Damiano Lestongi (ITA) and John Tapp (CAN), last man in on 1:52.15. Locked out, the world record holder Arkady Vyatchanin (RUS), on 1:52.62 in 10th.
Women's 200m breaststroke
Rebecca Soni (USA) sent a 2:18.66 championship-record notice of intent to all others heading into the final alongside her. Beside her this morning was Sun Ye (CHN), on 2:19.77, while the heat after witnessed a 2:20.89 effort from Rikke Moeller-Pedersen (DEN). Those efforts replaced the 2:21.36 from Rie Kaneto (JPN) in heat 4 of 6. Also through, Martha McCabe (CAN), Alia Atkinson (JAM), Yulia Efimova (RUS) and Ji Liping (CHN). Among those locked out world l/c record holder from 2009, Annamay Pierse (CAN), on 2:25.34 in 16th, and triple golden girl here in Dubai, Mireia Belmonte (ESP), on 2:26.53 in 19th, an exercise aimed at further progress on medley.
Men's 200m butterfly
László Cseh (HUN), Olympic silver medallist, claimed lane 4 for teh final in 1:52.81, ahead of an African record of 1:52.91 for Commonwealth champion Chad Le Clos, with Wu Peng (CHN) occupying the last of the middle lanes for the evening showdown in 1:53.25. In the mix, Kaio Almerida (BRA), Robert Bollier (USA), Jayden Hadler and Chris Wright (AUS), with Marcin Cieslak (POL) last in on 1:53.76, locking out his teammate and 2005 world long-course champion Pawel Korzeniowski by 0.01sec.
Women's 200m freestyle
Katie Hoff (USA) looked smooth as she tested the 1:53.17 championship record established by Camille Muffat (FRA) leading off the French relay on day 1. Hoff's 1:53.48 placed her in lane 4, with Muffat taking 5 in 1:54.27, the other side of middle going to Olympic and world l/c champion and world record holder Federica Pellegrini (ITA), on 1:54.66. In the mix, Kylie Palmer (AUS), Tang Yi (CHN), Evelyn Verrsazto (HUN), Blair Evans (AUS), with Dana Vollmer (USA) las through, on 1:55.40. That locked out the season-best leader coming into the meet, Femke Heemskerk (NED), by 0.06sec, and European l/c silver medallist Silke Lippok (GER), on 1:55.58.
Men's 4x100m medley
The championship record of 3:24.29 to Russia in 2008 will fall. It almost did this morning, Russian A-B team on 3:24.71 ahead of the shadow USA quartet on 3:26.69, Germany on 3:26.91, France, world NO1 long-course this year, on 3:27.16. In the mix, Japan, Australia, Brazil and China, whose 3:29.09 locked out Canada by 0.83sec.
The last finals session of the 2010 championships start 7pm local time.