British swimmers were given a gentle warning at their wrap-up team meeting of the meet - after celebrating a fourth-place finish on the medals table: look over your shoulders and watch for the little sharks snapping at your heels and hungry for a ticket to a home Games in London 2012.
As he launched a campaign to find a headline sponsor for the national swimming team, performance director Michael Scott said: "My message to this team before they leave here is that it won’t be a question of simply rolling up to 2012. It will be seriously difficult to make it to a home Games.” He rattled out a set of heartening statistics topped by a British youth team that led the medals table at the European junior championships last month.
Asked to sum up Britain’s effort in Beijing, Scott said: "One positive step forward but one gigantic leap required for London 2012. We have a lot to do for us to be at the level that the public will expect in 2012. We need a national sponsor for the Britain team. We need a naming-rights sponsor to get behind us and travel this road to a home Games with us, hand in hand."
Supporting the two gold medals for Rebecca Adlington in the 400m and 800m freestyle and Joanne Jackson’s bronze behind her teammate in the 400m, the national team celebrated one world, six European and three Commonwealth standards at the helm of 25 British records generated, in line with the number of world records. No-one stands still. Gemma Spofforth added to that tally in the final session of racing by setting two European records in one race: her 59.05sec backstroke set a new standard that would have won her bronze in the individual event instead of fourth, while the medley relay as a whole wiped two seconds off the continental 4x100 metres standard, with 3min 57.50sec. That left Spofforth, Kate Haywood, Jemma Lowe and Francesca Halsall nursing another fourth-place finish. “I had a good swim, but we are all very disappointed. Fourth again is not where we wanted to be,” Spofforth said. Right attitude, Scott noted. “We have to find the alchemy to convert those into podium places, but we'll take some positives,” he said.
The age of the performance-enhancing bodysuit skews the significance of records set in Beijing, but the 21 places in finals for British swimmers is more than three times the average number achieved at the past five Games. Britain's fourth-place finish marked a rise from eighteenth place in 2004 and no medals at all in 2000. When London hosted the 1908 Games, Britain finished top of the medals table in a far less competitive world. In 2008, 12 nations claimed at least one gold and 21 countries paid at least one visit to the podium.
The age of the performance-enhancing bodysuit renders the national-record count a little meaningless in a pool where history was rewtitten for every nation, but 21 places in finals is more than at any time since 1960, discounting boycott years.
Britain's 4th place finish marked a rise from 18th place in 2004 and no medals at all in 2000. A fine line between Athens and Beijing in some ways but what a difference a gold can make - let alone two. When London hosted the 1908 Games, Britain finished top of the medals table in a far less competitive world. In 1960, when Britain finished third behind the USA and Australia, those three nations were alone in winning gold. In 2008, 12 nations claimed at least one gold and 21 countries paid at least one visit to the podium.
The Adlington effect will be significant in the approach to London 2012, said Michael Scott, Britain Performance Dirtector. The first British swimmer in 100 years to win two gold medals, Adlington is the first woman to win a title and set a world record in an Olympic event since 1960. Eight years after Britain failed to place a woman in any final, 9 of the 16 finals featured British women. The ghosts exorcised, the burden of a history that got heavier with each passing Olympic cycle now removed, Scott said that it was time to push the flood gates open. “Rebecca will be an ambassador and role model for swimming in the country. This is the start of a time when people will believe that Britain can get up and do it. It’s the proof that it can be done in Britain, with a British coach ... we have to get that sense of belief going and spreading.”
Scott paid tribute to the coaches on the team who had done “a great job” but reserved special praise for the man who he replaced, Bill Sweetenham. "Ive just arrived and what we saw happen this summer as a collective ... is down to Bill’s hard work," said Scott. "The cake was already baked. I’ve put a little bit of icing on it. Any person who does not pay tribute to Bill in the success we’ve had this summer and at this meet has failed to recognise the hard and truly significant work that Bill put in."
That work will continue in October, when Denis Pursley, the former head USA coach and mentor to the legendary Mary T Meagher, arrives as Britain’s London 2012 head coach and five new performance centres at new 50m pools open for business. More “harder, more regular and smarter racing” was needed for British swimmers, while tips would be taken from the nation’s most successful medal-winning sports, cycling, rowing and sailing.
From his home in Australia, Sweetenham said: “Words can't describe how I feel ... British athletes and coaches in swimming have turned the corner. If this can be sustained, London looks fantastic as all the young athletes on this team will go from strength to strength.” He had reason to feel happy. These had been Britain’s best Games for 100 years, at the end of an eight-year period in which Sweetenham had led the way until late last year. During those years, British swimming celebrated its first woman world champions, relay (2001) and solo (2003), the first time Britain topped the points table at the European Championships (2006) and the first time that Britain had topped the medals table at the European junior championships (2008). There were more medals won at world level in the past four world championships than in the eight that went before.
Scott will meet Denis Pursley soon after returning to Britain and the two men will talk tactics and work out what needs to be improved. "They raced well here but they got tired. We have to get them to race more and more often. More regular, tough racing is required. We live in Europe, the competition is there. We have to take those opportunities." He recalled the case of Michael Klim, the Australian who did not live up to expectation in the 100m butterfly at the 1996 Olympic Games. The following year, his coach, Gennadi Touretski, made him endure 100 races. It was race, race, race.” In 1998, Klim won six gold medals at the World Championships.
“We have to look at some of those strategies," he said. "There is no doubt that we have made steps in the right direction but there are areas where we have to make big changes, lift the bar higher, put a four-year plan in place." The ghosts of a recent mediocre past appears to have been exorcised, the burden of a history that got heavier with each passing Olympic cycle now removed. Scott suggested that it was time to push the floodgates open.