The Final Analysis; Beijing 2008
Aug 28, 2008
Craig Lord

The statistics used in this article stem from the work of Nick Thierry, the SwimNews founder whose work on world rankings for the past 30 years has provided an invaluable resource for the sport and the media who cover it

The journey is over. Time to reflect. Easier to do so from a distance, and not least of all because within China there are things that must go unsaid. A molehill can now be revealed, the mountain is out there to be conquered yet. We lived in a bubble beyond the bubbles of the Water Cube. It was a very fine bubble. The machine moved like clockwork, the young volunteers smiled at the world and the world smiled back.

Nature and news training dabble in doubt, condition one to be cynical. So let's be clear. Many of us had a ball. The Chinese did a great job. The complex, the Olympic Park, the venues, the reception we received, the ease with which we were able to work, the friendliness of our hosts, the one-stop security checks (as opposed to myriad checks within 200m on the way to work, which has been the norm in varying degrees at past Games for a fair few cycles since the tragedy of Munich). All of that was splendid. Great job done. A job that may never be repeated in quite the same way again. And for good reason.

Before we veer off into a swimming lane with a final analysis of events and links to the analysis we wrote during the Games, first, a few snippets of bad news for the wide-eyed and clueless. Jacques Rogge praised China's ability to "bring hundreds of thousands of volunteers to different sites". The numbers were indeed truly impressive. Amazing what having no choice can achieve. I spoke to three Asian foreign correspondents who file for very different publications. They spoke with common voice when they said that they had no doubt at all that each and every volunteer and their families had been vetted before being placed in line to smile. That is not to say that the smile was not genuine. I firmly believe that it was. I firmly believe that to engage is better - much better - than not to engage. But let us not pretend that choice was paramount, as it was in Sydney, Athens, Barcelona, Atlanta and so on and so forth.

Let us not turn a blind eye to the agricultural community less than 200km south of Beijing which has gone out of business because of the Games. Water was re-routed so that we could all have regular showers and shaves and flush away the detritus of the day. Crops dried up and died just ahead of the community. Some may start up again, some could not afford to wait and, like the Olympic merchandisers and marketeers, have moved on. There's a certain future in the certainty of the Games. Not so in the game of life when water is withheld so that we can all go home and speak of splendid things in a fabulous place.

The roads to the community in question were blocked - no-one in, no-one out. A story not to be reported. Taxi drivers were instructed to inform the police if a foreigner asked to travel to that region. A colleague of mine reported that of the 77 requests to protest inside the Olympic bubble, the IOC gave permission for ... well, none. Unhealthy. Some who did protest in places too close to comfort were sentenced to retraining. They included two women approaching 80 years of age. They protested against the demolition of the block they had lived in for many a long year. The building had been cleared to make way for Games facilities. Compensation: nil. Retraining of the mind at 80. Possible? Yes. Desirable? No.

And what about all those fabulously pretty girls who lined the outer ring of the Closing Ceremony? The ones in the red dresses. The last faces of China's Games? Well, we are now told that each one was vetted for prettiness. Nothing too shocking there. It happens at home all the time. Personally I find pageants revolting. There was no revolting in the line of beauties in Beijing, though. Each, apparently, had to be at least 1.66m tall and each had to strip naked before judges who measured to a table of proportions, GDR-talent-scout style. And those 900 soldiers who rolled out the scroll? They wore nappies under their uniforms because they had to stay out of sight for some seven hours before the action, without a hope of getting to a toilet.

Britain, London 2012, could not match what unfolded in Beijing, we are told. Thank God for that. Can't imagine Her Majesty's forces in nappies. Can imagine what the headlines would scream if just one beauty told tales of being asked to strip naked in order to be judged suitable for ceremonies or not - let alone thousands.

China is a different world. Chinese swimming operates within that world - and not in the wider aquatic world. We saw a relay swimmer who had never been world ranked before the past 14 months pick up an Olympic silver medal as a member of a quartet that wiped 13sec off its best effort just 17 months before Beijing (the suit accounts for some of that but certainly not all of it) and leapfrogged seven other national teams at the Water Cube. The swimmer is 21. Never seen outside China before. Odd behaviour and strange practice are not confined to China, but then no other nation has more than 40 positive tests to its name from the past 14 years. The Chinese Swimming Association must do far more to make sure that its members play a full part in international swimming. China must do far more to grant absolute freedom of access to international anti-doping agents. There is no such thing as unannounced in China. Everyone apart from the security forces is announced.

And what are we to read into the fact that all that blood that will be stored for the next eight years is to be kept in Chinese laboratories? Can we truly be happy about that? Can we be sure that all who have and will have access to the samples over the coming eight uncertain years is an anti-doping saint? The questions could be put regardless of nation and laboratory but China is a case apart. Its record is atrocious. It is still living a suspended sentence as far as many in the international swimming community are concerned.

Concern stretches well beyond the Great Wall, of course. There are 20 or so nations in the world who organise domestic anti-doping test regimes. There are nearly 200 FINA members, there are 40 or so nations boasting world-class swimmers capable of challenging for a place on the podium. The majority of nations are subject to a very, very low level of testing. The Michael Phelps's of this world have filled a sample bottle some 40 to 60 times this year. There are some finalists from Beijing who pre-Games had been called on just once all year. Balance must be restored. WADA must play its part - and so too must FINA and its members, including national federations who wash their hands of testing, believing it to be a matter for WADA, FINA and international agents alone. The battle is far from over, the sport of swimming not yet rid of people who would stop at nothing to deny others their rightful prize and place in sports history. The greater the flow of money into the pool, the bigger the problem will be. Much work to do then.

Roche, the pharmaceutical group, has agreed to place tracers in a range of its products. The material is harmless to humans but can tell a testing agent that an athlete has cheated by introducing a banned substance - even substances produced naturally by the body - to their blood stream. Not before time. Many raised the issue in the mid-1990s in the midst of the China crisis. Roche now leads the way. Time for others to follow. Time for Governments and WADA to tell them that they must. Time for that process to be subject to checks. Is all that effort worth it? Depends if you like freak shows or not. Personally, I abhor them. Some say Phelps is a freak. No, he's not. The cheat is the freak. Phelps is a supreme, exceptional athlete, a truly unique human being when it comes to possessing the qualities that it takes to prepare for winning and then winning eight Olympic gold medals in eight sessions of finals.

And so, back to those amazing days at the Water Cube. The record count is impressive:

  • 25 world records (only four from Europeans...)
  • 66 Olympic records
  • 159 continental records: Asia, 36; Europe; 35; Africa, 34; Americas, 28; Oceania, 26.

Looking at 20 countries, the average national-record count is in line with the world-record count:

  • USA and AUS, 24; JPN, 27; GBR, 25; CHN, 27; RUS, 27, CAN, 28; ITA, 20). Some notable misses: GER, 2; NED, 1.

But celebrating records is meaningless unless viewed in the context of two overriding factors: the latest generation of bodysuits (and the LZR Racer accounts for more than 80% of that with a nod to all efforts in semis and finals in Beijing) has had a massive impact on speed; and where nations stand on the conveyor belt of progress. The latter is the measure than many would prefer not to look too closely at, lest they find that 25 national records have left them exactly where they were in world swimming, or worse still, further behind.

When counting national records, the better exercise if to see where the domestic standard stood in relation to the world record pre-February 2008 and post-February 2008.

Let's take the world top 10 in the 4x200m freestyle relays. Here we list the national record of each since February 2008 with the number of seconds that that effort left them behind the current world record, followed by the best time the national squad has clocked pre-February 2008, compared to the prevailing world record. The figures speak for themselves - almost status quo, with a few obvious changes:

Men:

  • 6:58.56 United States (WR, 0sec) 7:03.24 (WR, 0sec)
  • 7:03.70 Russia (5.14) 7:14.86 (11.62)
  • 7:04.66 Australia (6.10) 7:04.61 (1.37; in 2001, WR)
  • 7:05.35 Italy (6.79) 7:09.60 (6.36)
  • 7:05.77 Canada (7.21) 7:09.73 (6.49)
  • 7:05.92 Great Britain (7.36) 7:11.28 (8.04)
  • 7:09.12 Japan (10.56) 7:13.60 (10.36)
  • 7:10.91 South Africa (12.35) 7:31.70 (28.46)
  • 7:11.45 Austria (12.89) 7:18.31 (15.07)
  • 7:13.57 China (15.01) 7:15.13 (11.89)

Women:

  • 7:44.31 Australia (WR, 0sec) 7:54.06 (3.97)
  • 7:45.93 China (1.62) 7:55.97 (5.88)
  • 7:46.33 United States (2.02) 7:50.09 (WR, 0sec)
  • 7:49.76 Italy (5.46) 8:01.11 (11.02)
  • 7:50.37 France (6.06) 7:55.96 (5.87)
  • 7:52.36 Great Britain (8.05) 7:57.02 (6.93)
  • 7:53.83 Sweden (9.52) 8:02.34 (12.25)
  • 7:55.26 Hungary (10.95) 8:04.89 (14.80)
  • 7:55.63 Japan (11.32) 7:58.04 (7.95)
  • 7:56.14 Netherlands (9.83) 8:02.40 (12.31)
  • (7:58.11 Germany - 13.80) 7:50.82 (0.73; 2006, WR)

That picture is replicated in all events, to a slightly lesser of greater degree with some notable individual examples. The world swimming order is little changed. The final medals table is one take on the final result in Beijing. The other is number of finalists - and here's a picture on the strength of nations:

  • USA 48 (including all six relays)
  • AUS 35 (including, for the first time on the podium, all six relays)
  • GBR 21 (5 relays)
  • JPN 19 (4 relays)
  • CHN 16 (3 relays)
  • RUS 15 (3 relays)
  • FRA 13 (3 relays)
  • ITA 11 (3 relays)
  • CAN 10 (4 relays)

That progress against the past on the clock is almost universal cannot be denied, and the enormity of the impact of the post-February 2008 surge in standards stands out in the history of world rankings like a tidal wave in a relative millpond. For the stats on that and race-by-race analysis, click the links for updated files on events at the Beijing Olympic Games.

Men:

Women: