The fate of the 2021 Olympics still apparently hangs in the balance, as a confident statement from Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that they would definitely take place, was followed by a surge in coronavirus cases in the Japanese capital and a somewhat less confident stance from a prominent member of the IOC council. Dick Pound said he could not be certain the Games would take place against the background of the global pandemic.
If they do take place, they will be an Olympics like no other, probably with small or no crowds, few overseas spectators and athletes on the quickest of turnarounds for their events, flying in to compete and then leaving immediately.
But if we err to the optimistic and we assume there will be a Games in 2021 that leaves the small task of picking a team to go, with British Swimming having set out a comprehensive plan for how they will do that in just about all eventualities.
To a large extent that selection policy is based around the conventional format of a trials meet and a team selection based on qualifying times, albeit with additional qualifying opportunities beyond the initial meet, recognising the disrupted preparation that swimmers have had.
And there is the nub of the matter; the policy was issued before Britain was plunged back into lockdown. While elite sport has been able to continue and hence Britain’s best are still in something close to normal training, the majority of swimmers are having to stay dry with pools shut once again and unlikely to reopen before March at the earliest, around 6 weeks before the British Championships, which serve as de facto Olympic trials, are due to take place
While that may not have a significant impact on the make-up of the Olympic team, excepting that it all but removes the possibility of a late bolter to make the Games, it does raise a question about the Championships themselves. The meet is being held in London, a costly venue for British Swimming, which may be at least a partial reason behind a relative relaxation in qualifying times and the addition of a second heats session for the “slower” heats in order to maximise the entry numbers and hence the income accrued.
But there are two question marks about this; firstly, it’s far from clear that Britain will be in a position to allow mass gatherings by April, which would prevent any spectators attending (and remove their income also) but also may impact on the meet format, in terms of numbers or programme, something acknowledged in the meet conditions. Secondly, it is not a given that as many swimmers as normal will want to compete against the background of massively upset preparation and the potential health risks of travelling to the east end of London, accepting that the area’s current high levels of coronavirus infection may well have changed in three months’ time.
Is there a question mark over the viability of the Championships then? It does look as though, in their current format, they hang in the balance and it is hard to see how a “normal” meet can take place. If it does change format, perhaps to a condensed invitational time trial format such as that Canada is planning, then it’s hard to see that taking place in London, and instead it would be no surprise to see it move, perhaps to Sheffield if Ponds Forge is open, or to Loughborough, Bath or Stirling where the bulk of the national squads are training.
That’s far from an enticing prospect, but we need to recognise that these are unusual times. Even the back-up qualifying meets at the European Championships and Mare Nostrum meets in France and Spain have question marks hanging over them, either in terms of them taking place or whether British competitors would be allowed to attend. With that backdrop, having a trials meet at all is preferable to leaving everything to selectorial whim.