World Championships: GB in Numbers

It wasn’t the result that British Swimming was looking for. A single bronze medal, that’s all that GB had to show for 8 days of effort in Barcelona, which fell well short of a target set at 3-5 medals in Olympic events. And they left it late to achieve that, with Fran Halsall’s majestic sweep to the podium coming in the very last session of the meet. That bronze rescued a modicum of pride in what proved to be the worst performance at a World Championship since 1994 when Britain returned without a single medal.

There were always likely to be difficulties in this post-Olympic year. Not least if you consider that of the 5 medals won in Shanghai two years ago, 3 were won by swimmers now not eligible to compete for GB following the retirement of Rebecca Adlington and the defection of Ellen Gandy to Australia, while Liam Tancock was left nursing an injured shoulder and wasn’t selected to defend his 50m backstroke title. Losing that kind of experience will hurt any squad and the failure to get off to a good start may have affected a team already uncertain about its performance following an unfamiliar preparation.
So on the medal table it doesn’t look good, and in fairness it isn’t good, but drilling down into the numbers at least tells a story with more hope than, say, the results in Sydney in 2000, and some signs of improvement over the results in London 12 months ago.

Comparisons to London are instructive; last year trials were 16 weeks out from the main meet and as a consequence, trials this year were moved much closer in, finishing a mere 4 weeks before the World Championships started. On the face of it Britain toiled in Spain, but a comparison with the London results shows that in fact in some areas the performance was better, at least in terms of season’s bests and personal bests, however it felt; the reduction in semi-finalists and finalists, particularly when looking at Olympic events only, tempering any optimism however.

Year Swims Semis Finals Medals %age finals
2012 49 21 18 3 37%
2013 48 20 15 1 31%
2013 (Olympic events) 40 16 12 1 30%

These figures come from an analysis of last year’s results and a breakdown of the swims in Barcelona. The main headlines to come out of this look at 2013 are shown below. Note that the PB stats don’t include those set in relays (James Guy) or as a halfway split (Hannah Miley):

  • 9 of 48 swims (19%) produced personal best performances (London 3 and 8.2%)
  • 17 of 48 swims (35%) produced season’s best performances (London 10 and 20.4%)
  • 11 of 48 swims (23%) produced textile best times (London 8 and 16.4%)
  • 12 of 20 semi finalists (60%) improved on their heat performance (London 83%)
  • 9 of 15 finalists (60%) improved on their qualifying performance (this includes events without semi finals) (London 66%)
  • 3 of 10 finalists (30%) improved from heat to semi to final (London 62%)

That’s a cautiously encouraging set of stats, albeit that 2 PB’s and 3 season’s best times came in non-Olympic events; many more swimmers produced their best times at the worlds than they did In London, but the proportion is still worryingly low. It’s especially frustrating, for those watching as well as those competing, because Britain’s swimmers had the capability of winning many more medals than they did, potentially as many as 8 if they had been able to reproduce their season’s best or personal best times in Barcelona when it mattered.

Results with
Actual times Seasons Best Textile Best Personal Best
Gold 0 0 0 0
Silver 0 1 3 4
Bronze 1 4 3 4
Finals 15 29 35 36

This has been a longstanding problem and it’s exacerbated by an inability to get a second swim, with a few notable exceptions of course; if you don’t get out of the heats then you don’t get a chance to produce your best in the evening. Chris Spice and Bill Furniss will be the latest to have a go at unravelling this conundrum.

Another aspect of the British performance in Barcelona was the perceived weakness of Britain in the distance events, ostensibly as a consequence of the late trials. Furniss mentioned this in his interviews on the BBC after the meet and it is certainly logical that sprinters would be able to hold a taper from late trials more easily than endurance athletes, but the numbers don’t seem to bear this out. Results were largely similar between the two types of event, and possibly better in some measures in the distance events, albeit that far fewer swims were recorded in events of 400m or longer.

  • For events up to 200m, 11 of 35 swims improved on trials (31%)
  • For events of 400m and above, 6 of 13 swims improved on trials (46%)

Regardless of this, the impact of late trials can’t be underestimated, even if only from a view of unfamiliarity. Certainly next year’s trials will be about 12 weeks away from Commonwealth Games in their “usual” position, so we aren’t going to see late trials again before 2015 if at all, and may never know for sure what the impact actually was. Swimmers again showed they could peak for trials, but improving again at the targetted meet was the diffculty.

  • 41 of 48 season’s bests prior to Barcelona were swum at trials (85%)
  • 17 of 48 events improved on the time posted at trials (35%)

It’s clear that Furniss and Spice have quite a job on their hands, and they may now be thinking it’s a bigger job than first indicated when they took it on. Furniss has already stated that there will be changes to come and these initiatives and their effect will be keenly observed. Barcelona showed there is potential, harnessing it at the right time will be key.