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US Writes Bulk Of The Book Of London 2012

Aug 24, 2012  - Craig Lord

Michael Phelps will press no more into uncharted waters but the Stars and Stripes in which he sped will continue to set the standard in the race pool: that was the message, loud and clear, from the aquatic superpower at London 2012 - 30 medals in all, 16 of them gold - the best since a boycotted 1984 at home in Los Angeles.

Not a single final went without an American, while 18 individual finals in 26 went with two Americans in the mix, the men and women both achieving that in nine races. There were eight wins each for men and women, while the male maelstrom included two medal winners in the same final three times and the female force one final that produced two medals for the US.

China, thrice, Japan, four times, France, Brazil and the Netherlands were the other countries who put two swimmers in the same final but make no mistake: the USA, led by team director Frank Busch, with coaches Gregg Troy and Teri McKeever at the helm of the genders, dominated, winning almost a third of all medals, outdoing the whole of Europe combined, the whole of Asia combined. You can read more on that in the next edition of SwimNews Magazine.

A measure of American aspiration is to be found in the perception that Ryan Lochte "failed". He did no such thing. He intended to do better than two gold, two silver and a bronze but lest we forget, that tally rates him fourth best nation on the medals table. 

The detail of the US success is as striking as the overall picture when compared to the strike rate of rivals.

Take the numbers below, that show how the US, with China next best and the Netherlands and South Africa (the latter two at a wholly different level, the Dutch success confined to a small number of people and events) steps up when many a nation, including France, Australia, Britain, Japan, Germany and Russia Germany, Britain, Russia, step down, most of their swimmers swimming slower (and considerably so in some cases) at the Games than they did at domestic trials held several months before.

If ever there was a case for other nations to want to learn old lessons from the US it is right there in the facts and figures of London 2012: the superpower held its trials a month out - so close to the Games that it needed FINA dispensation to avoid being in default of the London 2012 entry date - and prospered, as it has so often in the past using the same model. 

The longer season, the greater frequency of racing in training time (but with specific purpose to racing nonetheless) and the critical last month in which a team comes together and readies itself to race the world - intending to be better than ever at the most important of moments - are some of the headers on a range of topics than the rest of the world has long gazed at and wondered. Often, as with late trials, most of the world has said "no, not for us" - and they've said that Olympic cycle after Olympic cycle … and lost.

Here's a sense (the picture more complex than the numbers) of where the battle was won and lost taking a sample of nations across all solo events:

  • First figure: swimmers who swam faster at Games (in best round they achieved) than they did at domestic trials or equivalent
  • Second figure: swimmers who swam slower at Games (in best round they achieved) than they did at domestic trials or equivalent

The nations with the big number up front stepped up; those with the big number at the back stepped down:

  • USA: 32, 18
  • CHN: 23, 17
  • AUS: 12, 39
  • GBR:   9, 40
  • NED:  14,  3
  • GER:    5, 23
  • FRA:    9, 16
  • RSA:  16,  4
  • JPN:     8, 23
  • CAN: 17, 16
  • RUS:  12, 18

Gender breakdown of those figures:

  • USA              Men: 17, 9; Women: 15, 9
  • China             Men: 11, 9; Women: 12, 8
  • Australia        Men: 5, 20; Women: 7, 19
  • Great Britain  Men: 5, 19; Women: 4, 21
  • Netherlands    Men: 8, 1;  Women: 6, 2
  • Germany        Men: 3, 16; Women: 2, 7
  • France            Men: 4, 9;  Women: 5, 7
  • South Africa   Men: 10, 2; Women: 6, 2
  • Japan              Men: 5, 9;  Women: 3, 14
  • Canada           Men: 9, 4:  Women: 8, 12
  • Russia             Men: 4, 13: Women: 8, 5

There is a big difference between the aims of nations, some opting for centralised programmes that target success across the board in all events, others placing much more emphasis on the few who can deliver big prizes.

Owing to the numbers on their teams, the cases of Australia and Britain stand out as the prime examples of teams with high expectations borne of early trials that simply could not replicate the speed that it took to get to the Games at the Games proper. Both have launched reviews. 

Australia, with 6 silver among 10 medals, did not live up to previous results and suffers pockets of weakness where once it enjoyed towering strength (men's distance freestyle, for example). Weakness is a relative term when talking of Australian results: their rate of success remains one that most nations have reason to be envious of. 

One of the key issues for Australia is not one that is easy to resolve, neither financially nor diplomatically: China is paying Australian coaches to defeat Australia and provide itself with much-needed credibility, though the relationship is very much part time, with little, if any, chance of reciprocal arrangements and access to all aspects of Chinese national and provincial programmes. 

The strategy has worked a treat for China … the arrangement has worked well for the bank balances of a few in Australia but not for Australian swimming as a whole. That coaches wish to have greater financial rewards for their work is understandable. US colleges and post-college programmes are stocked with overseas swimmers, some of whom go on to defeat Americans on the big occasions. Long-term, Americans gain from such arrangements (and not only financially), attitude and response important to that conclusion.

China celebrated its best Olympics of post-pariah days. Questions remain, the majority of victories won in a very particular way: with a back-end that super-fit rivals at the very top of their game and clocking best-ever textiles times that rival or beat the best in shiny suits simply cannot replicate (in some cases by vast margins). Answers that hang on "they work harder" don't wash any more than the same answer washed when the GDR delivered it. 

Hard work alone does not explain how Ye Shiwen, 16, can finish a 400IM in world record pace coming home faster than half the men's final and an average of 3sec faster on freestyle than the average of the rest of the best 6 women in the world at any event in the past six years, including the shiny suits era.

Among other Chinese oddities were selections that appeared to make little sense in the round: Ye Shiwen won the 200IM at trials with Zheng Rongrong on 2:12.18 and in third place on 2:13.17 22-year-old Li Jiaxing. Li, among those who spends time at Miami in Australia, got the trip to London and clocked 2:12.69 in semis. Similarly, Zhao Jin finished third at China trials behind Sun Ye and Liu Xiaoyu. Sun did not swim the 100m in London and was more than 3sec off best in the 200m. Best in China over 200m backstroke at nationals and the sole sub-2:10 swimmer in China this season, Yu Yaping did not race in London. 

Eighth at China nationals over 50m free, Zhu Qianwei, 22, finished the season 5th best from her nation as the only dash swimmer for China in London. Among those faster at trials was 16-year-old Li Zhesi, who tested positive for EPO in June (no case has yet reached FINA). In the 400m freestyle, 15-year-old Xin Xin finished second at China nationals in 4:05.93, a time that remains the second best in China this year - but she did not race the 400m in London, 400IM bronze medallist Li Xuanxu entered instead, and over 800m Xin, on 8:22.76 in April, clocked 8:40.88 in London.

If China has stepped up since it was an Olympic host, things can only get better for Britain. When it considers the question of how to convert 23 places in finals (third best of the meet) to podium places and halt a tradition of having more swimmers step down at the big meet than step up, it must cast its net far and wide, be prepared to stare long and hard in a mirror - and decide what it wants: big success for a few or big teams on which most continue to under perform when the heat is on.

Comparison with other sports has been the big theme in British media coverage of why the swimmers "let us down" when "our greatest team" stepped up and delivered the best Games Britain has ever had, only the US and China boasting more gold. Look at cycling, say the papers. Yes, do look at cycling but understand how cycling's result came about and then ask: is that what we want in swimming. 

The performance head of British cycling, David Brailsford, is cut in the mould of Bill Sweetenham to some extent: he is tough in the sense that he is clear when it comes to "we want to win - and this is what it will take - and there will be victims along the way". He is hands-on management, he runs an excellence centre at which you must be based and at which you must follow the regime set if you want to survive and receive support. There is no compromise, no stone is left unturned: the book of Brailsford could well be read as the book of Sweetenham - and there are those in the pool who would no more welcome Brailsford's message than they did Sweetenham's.

Britain got better, much better, taking that route under Sweetenham. And then some decided it was all too much. There has been a softening of resolve in some important respects. If two sets of trials introduced softness and weakness in the system in Olympic year, it is debatable whether there was a national plan for a home Games effort in the sense that where British swimmers trained and competed and when was left to home programmes to decide in the wake of Olympic trials in March. Clearly, much fine works has been done, standards in Britain high across the board among women and improving among men - but just as clearly, in those last few critical months to a home Games, many got something wrong at the moment that demanded they get it right.

There are many layers of issues. Far too many of Britain's top hopes were busy scribbling diaries for the national media, busy building profiles before they had a profile, so to speak. Then there is understanding and attitude. One fifth placer appeared on television two weeks after the swimming was done in London to tell the British public that his team had done well and that he was happy with what he had achieved. 

Fine, if that is genuinely how he felt but not fine at all when the viewers have contributed to £25m of funding leading up to the Games and expected a swimmer who was third in the world when London won the bid to at least hold his ground and not fall shy of the podium. If swimming is a profession for swimmers, the protagonists need to understand that there is a responsibility to deliver - and 5th doesn't cut it.

High performance is a complex issue but the lessons and models are out there and the fundamental intention is simple: to do your best (and aim for that to mean you win). The vast majority of British swimmers did not do their best at a home Games - and none won. Michael Scott, the performance director, described that position as "good just not great". 

Good goes too far in terms of an overall result poor enough (across five Olympic aquatic disciplines) for the only man to have been at the helm of the programme throughout all the hiring of directors and head coaches and the whole journey from 1996 to 2012, the chief executive of British Swimming David Sparkes, to consider his position as the head of the highest publicly funded, most heftily staffed swimming federation in the world. Were British Swimming a FTSE company, he would be called on to fall on his sword.

Sparkes gave head coach Denis Pursley a telling off in late 2008 after the American spoke the truth on shiny suits. A bad move on the CEO's part. Pursley remained pretty silent for the rest of his stay in Britain even though there were times when his expertise and opinion on things would have been most valued. He stayed silent to the end, leaving Britain with not a word said to the media. Perhaps we will hear something of his views in the impending review.

Like many around the globe, British swimmers have embraced the tools of their age, including social media such as Facebook and Twitter, platforms that allow us to read that a 50-plus 100m free effort at the Olympics is perceived as a "great swim" when clearly it was anything but. 

Twitter also allows us all to know that what swimmer A did with funding (and that may well be private sponsorship) X was to buy an "amazing" BMW… "and here I am in it, cool, eh?!" (not the precise caption under the photo for all to see but not far off). 

[I hasten to add to this file - given the misunderstanding that comment led to in Britain - yes, swimmers need transport, but practicality may be better than luxury if you want to keep a hungry edge alive and kicking... and perception is important - add "look at me and my car" to "look at my disappointing place at the Games" and it is not hard to see that those who helped fund British Swimming to the tune of many millions might well be a touch disappointed. The biographies of British swimmers are full of "Olympic gold, world record" ambition ... great - but how, when and why that turned into "I'm happy to have done the best I could today" through smiles in the media mixed zone are questions that require answers if Britain is to get better. Michael Scott said the smiles were a facade, an attempt to keep spirits up in public, while behind the scenes tears were flowing. It might have been better to show those tears so that the British public had a better understanding of what it meant for British swimmers to swim at a home Games and just how devastating some of them were to fall shy of best and shy of everything they'd worked for. Meanwhile, tweeting "just had the best two weeks of my life" after failing to make a semi-final amidst a truly disappointing show does not really give the impression that the swimmer (and they were not alone) understood the wider picture and the debate that will now ensue and the loss of funding that is likely to result from it all]. 

The point of funding should be to facilitate excellence not provide luxury and feed an over-egged self-perception the wrong side of earning the only rewards that count: medals, gold the key that unlocks the door to everlasting status, recognition and reward beyond the water.

If Britain has some soul-searching to do, then Germany is in a woeful place, with very few making finals and a host of results that reflect underlying problems in the system back home: for example, not a single women even swam in any event of 400m or more. There has been great upheaval in Germany, the DSV unable to settle on a model that works, with coaches coming and going. Time, perhaps, for some running the show to consider their positions and leave performance to those who understand it.

For France, London 2012 will go down as a roaring success - and for some it was just that, without question. Gaul beyond Nice and a few others was less impressive, with many a race going without a French swimmer at all. 

Pockets of weakness are to be found in all programmes, of course, the Dutch and South African show on the medals table masking a great deal of work to be done in the majority of events on the programme, while Japan had no man in any solo freestyle events at London 2012 and her women continued a trend of under performing at the big meet away from domestic events. 

The next edition of the SwimNews Magazine will carry in-depth coverage and analysis of the events of London 2012 from the whole team, with a diary of the view from deckside from Julia Wilkinson. Subscribe here for content that does not appear online.

The World Rankings, tirelessly updated by Nick Thierry, are still full of the stuff of shiny suits but excellent inroads have been made. Meanwhile, here is our Book of London 2012, contemporary race-by-race reports from Karin Helmstaedt and Craig Lord as events wrote themselves into history:



In Full:

Full coverage of all heats, semis, finals and comment