Britain’s men sprinting to stand still

Mark Foster - World Silver in Barcelona

The relative weakness of Britain’s men’s sprint programme over the last ten years has been a running theme; twice we’ve written about perceived failure and attempts to kick start sprinting success (in 2000 and 2002) but here we find ourselves in 2011, a pre-Olympic year with nothing having really changed.

With the exception of Mark Foster who won 50m silver in 2003 and finished 7th in the same event in 2001, Britain has failed to place a man into a global final over 50m or 100m freestyle in the last 10 years. During that period, Foster predominantly operated outside the mainstream of the swimming establishment, so his success says little for centralised efforts to find a world class freestyle sprinter.

Outside those two successes, there is only a solitary appearance in a 100m semi final, from Simon Burnett in 2007 to consider. Compare that outcome to results in other disciplines and it shows a group of swimmers who have not kept up with the progress made by their contemporaries in other strokes and in distance freestyle.

There is also evidence of the squad falling further behind the rest of the world – at recent trials both Australia and France had five men under 49 seconds forthe 100m, while Australia also boasts significant strength in up-and-coming sprinters. The first two home in Sydney were 19-year-olds James Magnussen and James Roberts,  while 16 year old Cameron McEvoy cracked 50 seconds at the Australian Youth championships. Meanwhile for Britain, Adam Brown is the fastest to date in 2011 on 49.41, while Britain’s third fastest 100m freestyle this a backstroker, Liam Tancock on 49.78, which does little to enhance the case of the specialist freestylers.

What are the reasons for this? One clue could possible be found in the early 2000’s; the then National Performance Director Bill Sweetenham had a target to win Olympic medals and saw the 4x200m freestyle relays as ideal events to target. After all, the women’s squad were already a force to be reckoned with on the global stage, being world champions in 2001, and Britain’s men had been strong in the latter part of the 1990’s, winning European championships on several occasions and going on to finish 4th in Fukuoka. Add this to the fact that the fields can be smaller in the longer relay than in other events and hence while the pace at the top is fierce, the competition to get through the heats is slightly reduced. Ultimately this focus narrowly failed to pay dividends in Athens, with the women finishing 5th and the men 4th, but could this emphasis on the 4×200 free be a factor on Britain’s sprinting?

Take an example of one swimmer emerging into the national team at that time – Ross Davenport. In 2002 he was the fastest 18 year old in the country over 100m freestyle, posting a time of 50.84 at a time when only two British men had dipped under 50 seconds. At the same time his best 200m free was 1.51.80. Fast forward to 2005 when he was established as a member of the British 4x200m team and he had best times of 1.48.50 over 200m (a 3% improvement) and 49.74 over 100m (a 2.1% improvement). An emphasis on the longer event clearly worked for Ross as he went on to win individual gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and a clutch of international medals in the relay, but without it could his 100m have been even better? This is just one example of one swimmer but if promising sprinters were being encouraged towards the longer event as part of a wider relay strategy then this could well have set back the progress of British sprinting.

Not that combining 100m and 200m freestyle is impossible, as shown by the likes of Pieter van den Hoogenband, but most medals in recent years have been won by those specialising in the shorter events; Cesar Cielo, Alain Bernard for example. Meanwhile Magnussen and Roberts didn’t even swim the 200 free at Australian Trials choosing to concentrate on the shorter two events.

Coaching is another area to consider – back in 2002 Sweetenham branded Britain’s sprint coaches “terrific failures” and promptly imported Bill Pilczuk to Swansea to set up a sprint programme. That didn’t last too long, with no significant freestyle sprint success, and the Swansea ITC is now in the hands of Bud McAllister whose pedigree is perhaps more biased towards middle distance freestyle. But Britian’s coaches have shown they have sprint capability in them. The success of Tancock and Fran Halsall at Loughborough shows that the know-how is there, it perhaps hasn’t yet converted itself to the male freestyle programme.

Simon Burnett

The perceived weakness highlighted by Sweetenham has led many to seek out programmes in the USA. Simon Burnett is perhaps the most obvious expatriate of recent years and also the most successful 100m sprinter Britain has produced in the last decade, winning gold and silver at the Commonwealth games, but never quite matching that achievement on the global stage. It’s clear though that he is not a long term prospect, with 2012 marking 10 years on the national team for him should he qualify for London and it seem unlikely he will continue beyond the Olympics.

The picture is not, however entirely bleak. Another USA based Brit, Adam Brown has all the requisisite physical attributes, standing 6′ 6″, and just needs to convert that into performance on the big stage. His training base at Auburn is a hotbed of sprinting talent, boasting Fred Bousqet and Cesar Ceilo amongst their alumni, and a great place for him to develop that potential under coach and ex-Olympic sprinter Brett Hawke. Meanwhile, Grant Turner, Britain’s number 2 this year, is training in the same programme as Tancock and Halsall, so is again in a great location to develop his sprinting. Beyond them Thomas Parris, 20, James Young, 19, and Jak Scott, 20 this year,  appear to be the next three cabs off the rank, but have a way to go before they can match their Australian peers.

Shanghai has come too early for those three youngsters, but Britain needs to create something to build from if they intend to have representation in London 12 months later. Brown and Turner could do it, but otherwise it might just be another return to the drawing board.