A few weeks ago I wrote 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 making finals, and the US only slipping slightly in terms of percentage of swimmers making finals.
With the 2015 World Junior Swimming Championships over, it gives me the chance to compare those results with the Senior results, and perhaps see where the world is heading when these juniors reach full maturity.
Since the Senior analysis was based on finalists, that’s where I’ll start.
Take a look at that chart, and now look at the same chart for Juniors
We can see right away that the US Juniors did much better, making finals in 75% of their races compared to 61% for their Senior compatriots. But also note that most of these top 10 numbers are higher. In fact, when I go back to the data I can see that the top 10 countries at the Senior Worlds accounted for 68% of all finalists. While at the Juniors, the top 10 countries accounted for 81% of the finalists.
In other words, there is far less parity at the Junior Worlds than there is at the Seniors.
When I broke this down by gender, and the results get even more interesting.
2015 – Top Ten Countries – Finals %
The big surprise there is that 88% of the Junior Women finalists come from only 10 countries. That is an astonishing concentration of success in a few countries. And without the 2 swimmer per country limit, that % would most likely be well into the mid-90s.
To determine if the 2015 World Junior Championship was an anomaly, I also looked at the 2013 Junior World Championships.
At a glance we can see that its similar. This is also backed up by the Top 10 statistics.
The 2013 Top 10 Junior Men countries accounted for 78% of the finalists, exactly the same as the 2015 Junior Men. And the Top 10 Junior Women countries accounted for 81% of finalists, which is lower than the incredibly high 2015 number, but still shows that there is less international junior parity among women than there is among men. And it supports the 2015 finding that the Junior championship is dominated by fewer countries than the Senior championship.
An explanation would be nice here. And I’ll try.
It’s long been stated, quite accurately in my opinion, that a large percentage of non-American elite swimmers in the world come to the US to train, whether in the college system, or to join one of the superclubs. This means that the incredibly good US swim system trains swimmers from other countries who then compete against them in the big meets. However, that really doesn’t happen with Junior swimming, as Junior swimmers are too young to spend more than one year at a US college. For the most part, Junior swimming represents the ability of countries to develop their own swimming talent.
If this is true, then we’re seeing that the pool of countries able to develop top swimmers on their own is actually pretty small.
The next thing we’ll look at is whether the same countries are doing well in both Junior and Senior.
And here we find more surprises with the 2015 Championships.
The US tops both lists, however there are some huge differences with the other countries. In fact, a surprisingly small number of countries are doing very well in both. If we define ‘doing well’ as in reaching finals 20% or more of the time, there are really only 7 countries that meet that definition, and those are the first 7 countries in that chart.
Within those 7 countries we still see some significant differences in Juniors and Seniors. Russian Juniors, for instance are doing extremely well, blowing away every other country except the US. The big surprises for me, however, were that the Netherlands and French Juniors were completely shut out of finals.
If we look back at the 2013 Junior results, we see that the top 8 countries are the same as the top 8 countries in 2015. The last 2 spots in 2015 were China and Spain, and in 2013 Poland and Germany. When I went back into the 2013 data, I was astonished to see that China, Spain and Netherlands were all shut out of finals.
Think about that for a second. In 2013 China was shut out of finals at the World Junior Championships. At the 2015 Juniors they were 9th, with 24% of their swims making finals. And in the 2015 Senior World Championships they had the 2nd highest percentage of finalists at 42%. Either China does not have a good future in swimming, or their Seniors are following a different path to success than the rest of the world.
There is substantially less parity in international junior swimming than there is in senior swimming. In fact, junior swimming seems to be dominated by 8 countries who appear to be able to consistently develop their own talent. This dominance is even more pronounced with the Junior Women.
Perhaps not surprisingly, 9 of the top 10 Senior countries were also in the top 10 Junior countries, showing some consistency across the ages. And with the exception of the US who still dominate both championships, the order of the other top countries changes substantially from Championship to Championship.
In other words, unless senior doping programs shoot some countries higher in the rankings, things won’t be changing on the senior scene for some time to come.