Transformed By Technology And Timing
Aug 9, 2008
Craig Lord

After just one session of preliminaries at the Water Cube, the verdict is in: the pace of progress in the Olympic pool here in Beijing is unprecedented. History is being rewritten before our very eyes courtesy of a perfect storm of timing, technology and the spread of world-class standards around the world. The list of fastest fields will be entirely new by the end of these Games.

   The time in which Stephanie Rice, of Australia, won the silver medal in the 400m medley at the world championships a year ago would have placed her 18th in the heats in Beijing; last into the final of the 400m medley heats led by Superfish Michael Phelps - in an Olympic record of 4:07.82, 0.44sec quicker than he swam to win gold in Athens 2004 - was Thiago Pereira, of Brazil, on 4:11.74. It took, 4:16.77 to make the final four years ago, that time good enough for 18th place four years on.  And in the heats of the 100m butterfly, title favourite Libby Trickett (AUS) found herself 12th best on 58.37. Britain's Jemma Lowe, 18, was last into the semi-final of 16, on 58.49, 0.04sec ahead of 2004 silver medal winner Otylia Jedrzejczak (POL), who failed to progress. In 2004, it took a 59.84 to make it through to the semi-finals.

   In the heats of the 100m breaststroke, British champion Chris Cook, one of only seven men to race under the minute, scraped into the semi-finals in 15th place, on 1:00.71, a time a tenth of a second away from what it took to win a medal in 2004 and would have granted him silver in Sydney 2000. Leading the way into the Beijing semi-finals was Alex Dale Oen, of Norway, a nation that has yet to celebrate an Olympic champion in the pool, in an Olympic record of 59.41. If he was the first man to race inside a minute in Olympic waters, then four others followed immediately after.

  Trickett hit half of the nail on the head when she said: "It's obviously a lot faster being at night and being an Olympic event it's going to be a lot tougher." NBC television, the Olympic broadcaster, insisted that swimming tradition be turned on its head here in China, with finals held in the morning to coincide with prime-time viewing in America. All the better for the home crowd to see Phelps chase Spitz and NBC accountants chase advertising revenue. No matter that science suggests that peak performance among athletes is more likely much later in the day. The dollars counted for more, and qualifying rounds in Beijing are bound to produce efforts that reflect what would have happened in finals at previous Games.

   Technology has also played a big part in pumping up the pace in the pool. Since February this year, when the Speedo LZR Racer, with high compression factors and polyurethane panels designed by NASA, 51 world records have fallen, 29 of them in the Olympic long-course pool and 47 of them to swimmers wearing what some have described as "technological doping". Other manufacturers have now been allowed to follow suit, with TYR, adidas (Britta Steffen will not wear in Beijing what she wore back in March) and Arena among those with new garments on swimmers at these Games, and new players such as Jaked seeking a slice of the action via Italians. At the world short-course championships in April this year, more than 400 swims among swimmers who placed between first and 20th across a range of events improved on their best times by an average of 2 per cent while wearing the LZR. We will see similar things in Beijing.

  In such a cauldron at the Water Cube, Michael Scott, the performance director of Britain, said: "World swimming has moved on. I was sitting next to the Denmark team and their man dropped from 3:48 to a 3:45 (Mads Glaesner, 3:45.38). It's a very fast time. You would have expected that to make the final [in years gone by] but he missed out. The world has become much more competitive. It's a combination of a variety of factors and technology is playing a part in that."

  The statistics of the sport and the world rankings will be transformed radically as we watch at the Water Cube over the coming eight days.