Is the Swimming World Catching Up to the US?

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Those of you who watched the recent World Championships results were probably as shocked as I was with the Day 1 news that both the US and Australian Men’s teams missed making finals in the 4×100 Freestyle relays.   Both did as they always do – swam 4 slower swimmers in the heats to rest up the 4 fastest for finals. But unlike other years, neither made finals. In fact, they weren’t that close, with the US team finishing tied for 11th, and the Australian team finishing 13th.

On the surface, it looked like both countries badly miscalculated how fast the other countries would swim. Another alternative is that both countries had unanticipated substandard swims by their B teams. A third alternative is simply that no thinking was involved, and both countries just carried out their usual practice . After all, it had always worked in the past.

I suspect that it was all of the above. Certainly, the morning swims weren’t fantastic by either country. In fact, you have to go back to 2007 to find a world championship when where those times would make finals. But the problem is also that the margin for poor swims is now so small that this practice is inherently risky.

So what does this mean for the swimming world? Is the rest of the world catching up to the swimming powerhouses? Is the US losing their dominance?

The World

We’ll start by determining if the rest of the world is catching up.

There are a few ways to test this. After every World Championships, FINA releases a thorough analysis of all Championships since they started in 1973 (here), including how many countries won events, and how many countries won medals. (The latest release including the recently concluded 2015 Championships won’t be released for a while.)

However, I was concerned that only including wins and medals could easily be skewed by incredibly good swimmers from countries without strong swimming depth. Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe is such an example. With 2 gold and 2 silver in the 2005 World Championships, FINA ranked Zimbabwe as the 4th country overall in the medal standings. Yet you could hardly call Zimbabwe a swimming powerhouse.

Instead, I selected 7 different World Championships over the years, and counted the number of countries with finalists. The idea is to see if more countries are getting good enough to get swimmers in finals.

Finalist by Country

We can easily see that 1973 had relatively few countries making finals. We also see more countries with finalists through 1986, 1991 and 2003. From then until the present we seem to have stabilized at 30-35 countries – roughly double the number from 1973. On this basis we can say that the swimming world is far more competitive than in 1973, but not significantly more competitive than 2003.

I then tested this by seeing if this increased number of countries with finalists corresponds to increased difficulty in getting into finals. In other words, as more countries fight for finals, we should see that it’s harder to get into finals.

Below is a comparison of the difference between 8th place qualifying time for finals and the 1st place qualifying time, as a percentage of the 1st place time. As an example, if the 8th place time qualifying for finals was 1:03.0 and the 1st place time was 1:00.0, then the difference would be 3 seconds. This corresponds to 5% of the 1st place qualifying time.

I then selected 3 widely different events: 100 FR as a popular event that every country typically swims , 200 FL as a less popular event, and 1500 free as a distance event.

8th vs 1st

This chart looks like a bit of a mess, but we can definitely see that 1973 was not nearly as competitive as later years. We can also see that by 2003 we had pretty much stabilized at between 1% and 3%. In other words, this results supports the previous chart as to increasing competitiveness up to 2003, and relative stability since then.

The US

The next question is at whether the US is maintaining its swimming dominance. We’re going to take a look at this from a few different viewpoints.

The first way is simply to look at the percentage of entries making finals for the top countries at each of the 7 world championships from above. We’ll start off with the first World Championships from 1973.

1973

This year probably represents the pinnacle of dominance by any country at a World Championship ever. And it may never be reached again. The US men reached the finals in every one of the 27 possible entries they had, while the women missed only 2 entries out of 26. A truly stunning performance. We can also see here the early signs of East German swimming and their state-sponsored doping system.

(For those who are interested, I’m using the maximum 2 entries per individual event, and 1 entry per relay event. I’m ignoring the fact that some lesser ranked countries may not have entered the maximum number in each event.)

We’ll look at the other 6 championships next.

1986

19912003

2009

2013

2015

It was inevitable that the US couldn’t maintain that astonishing dominance from 1973. In all of these championships, including 2015, the US comes out on top in overall % of swims making finals. It’s clear that the US is still dominating the international swimming scene. Also notice that the second placed team changes. In other words, other countries mount assaults on the US, but can’t sustain it.

Next, let’s isolate only the US numbers over those championships.

US Finals

Here’s where we start to sense that, while still dominant, the US is slipping a little. Other than 2013, we can see a general downward trend in numbers. In fact, the US % for 2015 was the lowest yet, just slightly lower than the 2009 shiny suit championships. While definitely not a cause for alarm, it’s a trend that the US should be noting.

Now let’s look at this another way.   Let’s look at the number of finals without a US swimmer for these 7 championships.

No US Finals

We can see here that there is a definite increase in finals with no US presence. In reality, the overall numbers are small -2015 had a total of 42 events – but the trend is still interesting.

I looked into this a little further to try to find any patterns in where these no-US finals are occurring.  It turns out that the US has a significant problem with the 50 Back, 50 Breast and 50 Fly events. Note below that the maximum # of swims in the 50s is 6 per gender.

US 50s

Clearly, the US is not performing well in these 50s. With 6 entries for each gender, the US is making far too few finals. In fact, if I calculate the % of US swimmers making finals in the 50 BK, BR or FL in all 8 World Championships since 2001, I get the following:

Men 42%

Women 54%

Those percentages are quite a bit below the overall US percentages of 60 – 80%, especially for the men. Clearly this is an area the US needs to work on.

Summary

With the number of countries getting finalists at the World Championships having stabilized at between 30-35 since at least back to 2003, it looks like swimming world competitiveness has reached a plateau. This is also echoed with the difference between 8th and 1st qualifying times for finals having stabilized over that time period as well. However, we can clearly see a significant increase in competitiveness when compared to 30-40 years ago.

As for US Swimming, there has clearly been an understandable decline from the absolute dominance of 1973. But there also appears to be a slight decline in finals % over the last 20 years. While the US is still dominant, that level of dominance is slowly shrinking. A significant portion of that decline can also be attributed to a relative US weakness in the 50 Back, Breast, and Fly.

In other words, the US still rules swimming. But there’s a hungry world out there just waiting for a chance to take over.

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One comment

  1. […] about US dominance and international parity in swimming, and how it has changed over the years (here). For the last decade or so we’ve pretty much had status quo, with 30-35 countries typically […]

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