TeamGB in the Olympic pool: An analysis

Much has been said about the performance of Britain’s swimmers in London. Depending on your point of view, and the spin that you want to apply, it was either much worse than expected, given the number of medals won, or better than the past, with more finalists than ever before. But as swimming was the only sport with a medal target not to hit that target, the results have unsurprisingly come under a great deal of scrutiny, with everyone asking what went wrong.

The first question is to ask if the target of 5-7 medals was realistic. Given the likely target of a single medal for open water swimming, that left the pool team needing to win 4 to 6 medals. The squad won 5 medals in Olympic events at last year’s world championships so it was in theory within reach, particularly since around 40% of the team have swum faster in 2012 than in 2011, but history suggests that results at the Olympics are much harder to come by. Certainly 5 medals would have been Britain’s best showing in recent times as indicated by results at the last 7 games shown in summary below. You can see more detail about what global swimming medals Britain has won in the last 20 years here.

Year Swims Top 16 Finals Medals %age finals
1988 52 21 5 3 10%
1992 49 12 5 1 10%
1996 28 20 6 2 21%
2000 34 21 5 0 15%
2004 32 24 11 2 34%
2008 44 33 16 3 36%
2012 49 28 18 3 37%

From those figures, the performance does not look bad in the context of what has gone before. Certainly the number of finallists achieved in London was the highest ever, albeit that the number of swims was higher than it had been since 1992. Correcting for that, the perfomance was about equivalent to Beijing in terms of finalists and medal numbers. Given the funding levels over the last 4 years, however, this was rather less than many observers expected.

So while there were encouraging signs about the depth of the performance, in that there were more swims but the same proportion of finalists as 4 years ago, concerns have been raised about the level of performance achieved. While it’s impossible to control what others are doing, and hence to some extent what medals can be won, one’s own performance is controllable. It’s in this area that most criticism has been levelled, as few swimmers approached their best times in London.

While being outsiders we can only speculate as to why this may be, it is possible to look at the results and to make an assessment of the level of performance. To that end pullbuoy has completed a high level analysis of the results of the British swimmers in London with a view to establishing the quality of the performance on a more objective level. It would be expected that British Swimming will have already completed such an analysis, with the added advantage of having access to training performances and other related data to provide an extra layer of context, and this will no doubt feed into the overall review that is scheduled to take place later this year.

You can see the full analysis here. This consists of a comparison of each swimmer’s season’s best and textile best performances with their performance in London. It’s difficult to establish with certainty what a swimmer’s textile best from publicly available data as it’s not recorded what swimwear was worn, but an estimate has been made using best times from 2006, 2007 and 2010-2012, for the purposes of this exercise.

In addition a hypothetical analysis of the team’s result has been made assuming all swimmers were able to reproduce their season’s best or textile best at the Olympics. This is a very subjective assessment and ignores the possibility that other swimmers may also have swum better in London – certainly several big names didn’t produce their season’s best in the games, James Magnussen and Ranomi Kromowidjojo in the 100m freestyle being two very high profile examples.

For the purposes of this analysis and for simplicity, a swim is considered to be all swims by a swimmer in a given event. It is assumed for hypothetical scenarios that a swimmer could produce their best time in the heats, semis and finals, as appropriate to the relative ranking in each round of competition. An assessment of improvement from heat to final, via semi final if appropriate, was also made. Note that relays are not considered, only individual swims.

The headlines of the analysis are:

  • 4 of 49 swims produced personal best performances (8.2%)
  • 10 of 49 swims produced season’s best performances (20.4%)
  • 8 of 49 swims produced textile best times (16.4%)
  • 18 of 21 semi finalists improved on their heat performance (83%)
  • 12 of 18 finalists improved on their qualifying performance (this includes events without semi finals) (66%)
  • 8 of 13 finalists improved from heat to semi to final (62%)

The low proportion of best times is an area that warrants investigation in terms of the preparation of the swimmers, both physically and mentally. Crucially 55% of the swims were season bests at the Olympic Trials, with the majority of the balance coming at the June trials from those swimmers still chasing selection. The full breakdown is shown below. It’s worth noting that of the 10 swims from swimmers who were picked at the second trials, only 1 was able to improve on that June performance in London. Whether this is a warning to those who advocate later trials is not clear since all of the athletes selected in June would have been on their third taper of the year at the Olympics, rather than their first or second, which may have had an impact on the final performance.

Season’s best swum at:
Olympics 10 20%
March Trials 27 55%
Others (unrested) 3 6%
June Trials 9 18%
Total Swims 49 ;

Britain won one silver and two bronze medals in reality. If all swimmers had produced their season’s best or their textile best performances, then clearly this would have been improved, as shown in the table below. Importantly, unless the team had produced improvements on their best ever textile performances, which would have meant lifetime best performances for many, Britain would still not have struck gold. However season’s best performances in London would have seen the sport hit its funding target – just. This shows that, with hindsight, even the low end of the funding target was a stretch.

Results with
Actual times Seasons Best Textile Best
Gold 0 0 0
Silver 1 3 4
Bronze 2 2 3
Finals 18 26 29
Semis 21 31 34

Without full access to the team and its preparations, this is not the place to draw conclusions about what went wrong. It is likely that a great deal went right as well given the high number of finalists and 3 medals won. Certainly the outcome was far from the disaster it is portrayed as in many quarters, but it clearly fell below expectations and short of a challenging target.

The review being completed by British Swimming will undoubtedly consider the facts as presented above in addition to other non-public data, and will hopefully draw some meaningful conclusions about any changes to future preparations. There will be many interested parties awaiting publication of those conclusions.