World swimming championships are just as important as the Olympic Games

Chris Lewis Roar Guru

By , Chris Lewis is a Roar Guru

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    John Bertrand, the President of Swimming Australia, suggested on the ABC radio show The Ticket that any critical assessment of Australia’s performance at the 2017 World Swimming Championships should be downplayed on the basis that the 2020 Olympic Games is the ultimate aim. I disagree.

    In my opinion, too much is made of the importance of the Olympic Games in an era where increasing importance is given to world championships for a number of reasons.

    With the introduction of prizemoney at the 2007 World Swimming Championships, Australian swimmers have a reason to maintain good form for all global championships.

    After all, Australian swimmers receive a maximum $35,000 of public assistance in one year, less through means testing if they receive commercial sponsorship or live at home.

    While prize money was first limited to medalists in 2007 – at $US24,000 per event – and then extended to the top six by 2013 – at $US39,000 per event – World Swimming Championships, since 2015, now offer $US60,000 prize money per event.

    As of 2017, prize money for the top eight placings from first to eighth was, in US dollars, $20,000, $15,000, $10,000, $5,000, $4,000, $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 respectively.

    Further, with Australian taxpayers contributing just under $40 million to fund the Australian swimming program for the four years prior to 2016, the World Swimming Championships are a crucial indicator of swimming’s status as Australia’s most successful sport. Swimming has contributed 192 of our 497 total Summer Olympic Games medals and 64 of the 147 golds.

    So how did Australian swimmers perform at the 2017 World Championships, and how did the performance compare to more recent global championship results?

    According to former swimming star Libby Trickett, the championships were “really hard” to watch given our “expectation that we’ll always be successful because we have been in the past”.

    With Australia finishing eighth on the medal table, based on colour of medals, Trickett called on Swimming Australia to look at new ways to keep our swimmers competitive against improving rivals. This may include how to retain coaches as well as give the athletes more race experience.

    With Australia’s World Championship medal tally of ten the lowest since 1991, the following table confirms the 2017 performance was the worst of recent performances in terms of medals won since 2011.

    While the 2017 medal performance was identical to the 2012 Olympic Games, the 2012 performance was achieved with just 32 events compared to 42 in 2017. The latter event included four mixed gender relays and an extra two events each for individual freestyle, butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke events.

    2017 2016 2015 2013 2012 2011
    Total events 42 32 42 40 32 40
    Australia 10 (1) 10 (3) 16 (7) 13 (3) 10 (1) 13 (2)
    USA 38 (18) 33 (16) 23 (8) 29 (13) 31 (16) 29 (16)
    China 10 (3) 6 (1) 13 (5) 9 (5) 10 (5) 14 (5)
    Great Britain 7 (4) 6 (1) 9 (5) 1 3 5 (2)
    Russia 10 (3) 4 4 (1) 8 (2) 4 4 (1)
    Japan 7 7 (2) 4 (3) 6 (1) 11 6
    Sweden 4 (3) 3 (1) 6 (3) 2 (1) 0 2 (1)
    Italy 6 (3) 4 5 (1) 2 1 5 (2)
    Brazil 5 (1) 1 4 5 (2) 2 3 (3)
    South Africa 2 (1) 3 4 (1) 5 (3) 3 (2) 3
    France 2 (1) 3 6 (4) 9 (4) 7 (4) 10
    Spain 3 (1) 2 (1) 1 4 2 0
    Germany 1 0 3 (1) 1 1 5
    Canada 4 (1) 6 4 3 3 4
    Hungary 8 (2) 7 9 (3) 5 (3) 3 (2) 4 (1)
    Netherlands 4 2 4 4 (1) 4 (2) 6 (2)
    Denmark 1 2 (1) 4 4 (1) 0 3 (2)
    New Zealand 0 0 2 0 0 0

    Gold medals are listed in brackets.

    But, given the above table shows other mighty sporting nations, like China and France, also have fluctuating global swimming performances in terms of medals won, further information is needed to evaluate Australia’s performance.

    The following table breaks down Australia’s recent global swimming championship performance by examining individual performances for each stroke and the number of Australians making finals.

    Male 2017 2016 2015 2013 2012 2011
    Freestyle medals 2 2 (2) 2 1 (1) 1 1 (1)
    Freestyle finals 5 6 4 7 4 1
    Butterfly Medals 0 0 0 0 0 2
    Butterfly Finals 1 0 0 0 0 3
    Backstroke Medals 0 1 3 (2) 0 0 0
    Backstroke Finals 1 1 4 1 2 0
    Breaststroke Medals 0 0 0 2 (1) 1 0
    Breaststroke Finals 1 0 1 2 3 1
    Medley Medals 0 0 0 0 0 0
    Medley Finals 0 2 0 2 1 1
    Total individual medals male 2 3 (2) 5 (2) 3 (2) 2 3 (1)
    Total individual finals male 8 9 9 12 10 6
    Female 2017 2016 2015 2013 2012 2011
    Freestyle Medals 1 1 4 (2) 2 (1) 1 1
    Freestyle Finals 5 9 8 5 3 6
    Butterfly Medals 1 1 0 1 1 1
    Butterfly Finals 1 0 2 1 1 5
    Backstroke Medals 2 0 3 (2) 2 1 1
    Backstroke finals 5 3 5 3 3 5
    Breaststroke Medals 0 0 0 0 0 1
    Breaststroke Finals 1 1 0 1 2 2
    Medleys Medals 0 0 0 1 1 2
    Medleys Finals 0 1 0 1 3 3
    Total individual medals female 4 2 7 (4) 6 (1) 4 6
    Total individual finals female 12 14 15 11 12 21
    Total individual events 34 26 34 34 26 34
    Total individual medals 6 (1) 5 (2) 12 (6) 9 (3) 6 9 (1)
    Total individual finals 20 23 24 21 22 27
    Total freestyle medals 3 3 (2) 6 (2) 3 (2) 2 2 (1)
    Total freestyle finals 10 15 12 12 7 7
    Total relay medals 4 5 (1) 4 (1) 4 4 (1) 4 (1)

    While medal numbers vary greatly, there is no similar correlation with regard to the number of Australians making the finals.

    Although Australian swimmers won just two gold medals in 2011, including one relay, that year was the most successful in terms of the number – 27 – of Australians making individual event finals.

    Of course, even making a final one year does not guarantee future success. While our individual performances in the freestyle events certainly improved after 2011 and 2012, including more medals, five female butterfly finalists in 2011 did not lead to medals in later global championships.

    What does the table indicate? Well, it is indeed hard for any swimmer to make a global championship final, never mind win a medal.

    Is there a magical solution for Australia to remain a major swimming power? I doubt it.

    While swimming will long remain an important part of Australia’s sporting culture, even greater public assistance to assist swimmers and keep the best coaches may not be enough to prevent many more countries producing a greater number of talented swimmers.

    This is even more likely if prize money continues to rise for global swimming.

    Does it matter? Maybe for some, but not for me. I just enjoy watching the best swimmers in the world compete, although I will always prefer Australians to win.

    Whether Australia maintains its swimming prowess over time remains to be seen, but world swimming championships are indeed very important.