Delhi 2010: The going got tough and the tough got going

Oppressive heat, murky pool water, substandard accommodation, lengthy journeys to and from the pool each day and the small issue of widespread food poisoning. When you sum up the worst of the conditions that faced swimmers in Delhi you could be forgiven for thinking that the competition was less of an international championship and instead was one of Bill Sweetenham’s “toughening up” exercises, where he infamously withheld creature comforts from athletes to prepare them for what they might face in an athlete’s village. With what unfolded in Delhi it’s almost as if he had a point.

That said, Delhi has ultimately provided a successful and memorable Commonwealth Games. Certainly expectations were low leading in to the competition, but by and large the organisation has been successful, the odd delay due to beetles in the pool notwithstanding. The conditions may have meant that true world class swimming was a bit thin on the ground by current standards, and in case you thought the rest of the world took no notice, Jessica Hardy tweeted after the third day that she was surprised how slow the competition was. However comparison with Melbourne in 2006, which was swum in similar suits, shows that most events have moved on and there were signs of some significant future prospects.

For the home nations, there is an element of what might have been. With several high profile casualties of the illness that affected a large proportion of the teams attending, most notably in the pale and drawn figure of Fran Halsall, there were numerous events which would have been considered nailed on certainties for gold leading into the meet that didn’t come to pass. That said at the end of the meet, England had recorded their best ever medal haul at an away games, equalling their best ever results in Manchester, and the combined medal total from the home teams closed the gap once more on Australia. For the individuals affected however, if they haven’t posted a world top-10 time already this summer, and in reality many of Britain’s top swimmers had already done so either at trials or in Budapest, the prospect of reduced funding for next year is very real. British NPD Michael Scott spoke of medical get out clauses in the UK sport funding guidelines and no doubt those clauses will be being invoked in full where the Delhi experience has curtailed the opportunity to meet funding criteria.

For England, Liam Tancock and Rebecca Adlington were in imperious form, never really getting into top gear and yet still able to win two golds apiece with apparent ease. James Goddard, perhaps reaping the benefit of missing Budapest, was also at the top of his game, posting a superb time of 1:55.58 over the 200m backstroke and then cruising to a convincing victory in the 200IM. What was particularly satisfying in the latter was the fact that Goddard came in to the meet as the top ranked swimmer in the Commonwealth and was able to deal with that pressure.

Elsewhere, Hannah Miley was another to deal with the favourite tag, just holding off a fast finishing Samantha Hamill to win the 400IM. While she may have been suffering the effects of Delhi belly during the 200IM, the meet showed again that her best chances will always come in the longer event when she is able to use her superior breaststroke speed to greatest advantage. Miley simply does not appear to have the power to keep touch with her rivals on the fly leg of the shorter medley.

For the up and coming team members, the biggest success was Jaz Carlin of Wales. She has been showing her promise as a relay swimmer and in various preparation meets but finally came good on that promise, delivering Wales’ first swimming medal for 38 years in the 200m freestyle and then promptly following it with another in the 400m. Meanwhile, Ellen Gandy once again showed that she is learning to handle her nerves, adding two medals here to the bronze she won in Budapest.

For the men, Michael Jamieson and Andrew Willis marked themselves out as ones to watch in the 200m breaststroke, Jamieson in particular since he came within a whisker of snatching the gold medal, while there were encouraging introductions to senior international competition for many others, such as Emma Saunders and Aimee Wilmot, who has their first taste of finals competition.

On balance the meet was a success for the home nations, but was it a success for the Australian team? The Aussies are well used to dominating this event and certainly fared better than they did on home soil four years ago, when their men’s team managed only a solitary gold medal, and that in a relay. Here a clean sweep of the relays showed the depth that the Dolphins have even if not delivering individual successes. For the men though it was still a challenging meet, despite that relay success with only the returning Geoff Huegill and Brenton Rickard, just, claiming individual titles. The women fared much better, but it could be argued their dominance was overstated when some of the results are considered. Alicia Coutts won three individual gold medals, which combined with her two relay wins made her the most successful swimmer at the meet. However, it’s not in the realms of fantasy to suspect that a fully fit Halsall would have taken the 100m free and fly crowns from her.

Halsall might also have been expected to beat teenager Yolane Kukla in the 50m freestyle. Similarly few would have expected Lizzie Simmonds to have died so dramatically in the closing stages of the 200m backstroke to let in Meghan Nay. Those events alone added 4 golds to the Australian tally that could easily have been returning to England. Not that such an analysis should take anything away from the champions; they can only swim against the competitor in the pool and took their opportunities with aplomb when they were presented. Nay in particular never stopped chasing and was rewarded at the finish with the title. Coutts meanwhile produced the outstanding female swim of the meet, with the fastest ever 200m IM in a textile suit to comfortably take that gold medal. What will be more interesting is how she can back up those performances next year.

So what does this meet tell us? In terms of absolute performance, it tells us very little. With a few notable exceptions, the meet was slow by international standards. What it did show was that, when it comes to competition, times are not everything. The meet provided some fabulous racing and also demonstrated the increasing mental toughness of Britain’s swimmers who were largely able to overcome adversity to produce when it mattered. The mental strength gained will be vital in two year’s time when the team will find themselves under immense pressure at a home Olympic Games.