Early risers to shine in Beijing

Beijing is preparing for the Olympics
Photo: Steve Buckley/pullbuoy

The IOC have at last confirmed what many coaches and swimmers had feared, with the announcement last week that the swimming finals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 will be held in the morning rather than the traditional evening slot. Despite the opposition to the proposal from almost all quarters when it was first leaked, it seems that the IOC has bowed to commercial pressure from American Broadcaster NBC which barracked for the shift in order to have finals screened before a live primetime audience in the US.

Against such a background the response to the announcement was unsurprisingly hostile, with most federations and swimmers expressing at best disbelief and at worst disgust with the decision.

British Swimming Chief Executive David Sparkes said: “We’re really disappointed by the IOC’s decision. It’s clearly one the IOC may come to regret in time.” A view echoed by Australian Head coach Alan Thompson, who strongly believes that the financial imperative has governed the decision. “The only thing that gets me cranky is that (the IOC) have made the decision for commercial reasons, not for the good of the sport” he said.

It was, however, a decision that British Swimming were expecting, even as they hoped that it would never come to pass. At the most recent meeting of the Technical Swimming Committee it was decided that the 2007 British Swimming Championships would operate with morning finals – a decision made three weeks before the IOC announced the switch in Beijing.

There is precedent for such a move with half of the swimming finals in Seoul in 1988 held in the morning; what the results show in hindsight is that those finals held in the evening produced significantly faster swimming than the equivalent morning sessions. British swimmers have also faced the prospect of morning finals in the Stage meets before the 2002 Commonwealth Games, as Bill Sweetenham tried to encourage them to swim fast in the morning. That was an experiment that has since fallen by the wayside though.

Swimmers will see the sun rise in Beijing as they prepare for morning finals.
Photo: Steve Buckley/pullbuoy

More recently the thunderstorms which blighted the European championships in Budapest provided a stark preview of what may be seen in 2008. With the semi-finals of the 200m freestyle postponed overnight as the weather closed in, the swimmers were forced to return in the morning to complete their qualification for the night’s final. While it will never be clear whether the big guns were saving something for the final, only 4 of the 16 semi-finalists managed to better their heat times from the previous day. Set against a historical trend for semi finals to produce generally faster swims that finals, let alone heats, this empirically at least provides evidence that the finals will be slow in Beijing unless changes are made to swimmers’ preparation.

And changes are exactly what coaches will be making, with preparations already being made to counter the enforced early starts – Ben Titley has spoken about changes made to his squad’s preparation for the recent AIS international in Canberra, with the swimmer up and about at 5:30, ready to swim fast in the morning sessions. There will be many more early mornings between now and Beijing if they are to fully adjust.

Opinion: IOC sets dangerous precedent.