The European Masters Swimming Championships took place last week in London, hosted at the same Olympic Aquatic Centre that only the week before had seen the elite European championships take place. But whereas those championships had sparkled like a diamond, the masters’ equivalent was a deeply flawed gem.
It all started some time before when entries first opened, sold out to the maximum of 14,000 swims in around 48 hours and then were duly reopened to allow more swimmers in. The result of this about face from the organisers was a total of around 28,600 swims to be fitted into the same period of time as the original number. Cue the warm up pool being pressed into use as a second competition venue and the cutting of maximum event numbers from 5 to 3 per person. One’s viewpoint on these changes is perhaps largely influenced by whether entries were made in the original batch or as part of the top up, but the outcome was the same either way: approximately three times as many people swimming as originally intended.
But having made the decision to double the size of the meet it seemed that the organisers hadn’t then thought through how they were going to deal with so many people in enough detail, and in particular how they were going to manage flow through the pool buildings. On the training days, swimmers were left standing in queues to get into the pool which was “at capacity” only to be let in and find 27 people in the water, demonstrating inadequacies in the procedures that had been put in place. Those inadequacies were bought home on the first major of day of competition when the queues to get into the building were such that many swimmers were left stuck outside, unable to make it in for their races.
In fairness, lessons were learnt and by the third day of racing, things did improve. The queues outside were segregated into groups of heats so that entry was managed more in line with progress in the pool, but that still left many people sitting outside on the tarmac for considerable periods of time waiting to be let in for their swims. Given this was an inevitability, some thought as to how the queue could be protected, perhaps with temporary marquee, would not have been inconceivable. The weather was kind enough to prevent this becoming a bigger issue than it was. But even in the new improved queues all was still not well with communication still lacking in many areas. One group patiently queuing for their warm up on “Survival Saturday”, the day with the highest number of swims, were kept outside for nearly two hours past their allotted entry time, only to be told their warm up session had already finished by the time they got in. This lack of joined up thinking was symptomatic of the whole organisation, even in the build up to the meet. The strength of feeling amongst competitors is most eloquently captured in an open letter to LEN General Secretary David Sparkes from erstwhile chairman of the now disbanded British Masters Comittee, Verity Dobbie. Sparkes and LEN Masters Bureau chairman Simon Rothwell have since responded.
But credit where it is due. Once in the building the swimming side seemed to run with remarkable efficiency, and it was quite incredible how the poolside team of officials combined with their volunteer colleagues to get such a tremendous throughput of swimmers. The main pool generated a great buzz for all those lucky enough to swim in it, particularly during relay sessions, and the volunteers played a great part in keeping the event both running and to a large extent, fun. Even the security staff, faced with an unenviable task, were for the most part efficient and friendly in trying circumstances; they only did what they were asked to do and any failure was down to the process not the individuals.
And in spite of all the problems, there was much fast swimming, old friends were reunited, medals were won and for many the meet was a great experience. And that sums it up. Was it perfect? Far from it. But for all its faults, for most it was a flawed gem, but one they would not have missed.