Inclusive or Exclusive: The Surprising Ways Countries Handle National Championships/Trials

us olympic trials 3

When I started this post, it had a completely different focus. Four times I tried to address various aspects of Short Course vs Long Course swimming from the point of view of swimmers and national swimming organizations. And every time I ended up in the same place – that different countries handle Long Course in surprisingly different ways, and that these differences are reflected in how a country handles their national championships.

So I’ve changed the focus, as reflected in the title.

NOTE: Throughout this post I use the terms ‘nationals’ and ‘national championships’ to indicate a country’s most competitive meet of the year. In some countries this meet is called Trials, i.e. Canadian Swimming Trials.

 

Method of Analysis

Here’s the process I’m following to analyze the national championship philosophy of 8 swimming countries:

  • collect data concerning national championships, including qualifying conditions, bonus swims, youth qualifying times, and existence of SC nationals
  • compare qualifying times to US qualifying times
  • collect data on number of swimmers at national championships in each Olympic event
  • use the above to analyze each country

Here’s the basic data.  I included total swimming medals won over the last 3 Olympics to give some context around national success.

Another useful piece of information is the popularity of the sport as measured in 1 swimmer for every x people (country population divided by number of swimmers) . Strangely, the number of competitive swimmers in many countries isn’t readily available.  I’ve provided the popularity figure where possible.

Nat Qualifying Conditions v2

There’s one specific point of interest here. The US is the only country that allows swimmers to qualify using either SC or LC times for the LC championships. And this certainly make sense for them as they have such a thriving SC culture. It’s surprising that other countries with thriving SC cultures don’t accept SC qualifying times for LC nationals.

Next I looked at qualifying times, including any special youth qualifying times, and compared them to US times.

image001image002 

There are a few biggest surprise here, but the biggest has to be how close the Great Britain and Canadian qualifying times are to the US.  Neither country has anywhere near the population base of the US, and neither has experienced anything even remotely close to the success of the US.

China, Australia and Russia also have moderately tough qualifying times.   And although I couldn’t find the Japanese qualifying times, they’ve well known to be very tough as well.

And lastly we have South Africa, with much easier qualifying times and a much smaller competitive swimmer base.

Notice also the youth qualifying times. Canada has some ridiculously hard times for surprisingly young swimmers born only in specific years.  Great Britain and South Africa have more traditional youth times geared towards Junior swimmers.

 

Swimming Numbers at Trials

Qualifying times and conditions, swimming popularity, and Olympic medals don’t give us the complete picture.  To follow up on this, I also calculated the average number of swimmers per event at each country’s 2016 Olympic trials (only considering Olympic events). I was able to include Japan as I had their Trials results, but had to exclude China as those results were not available.

Canada just released psych sheets for their April, 2017 Canadian Swimming Trials, and so I’ve also included these swimmer numbers as CAN ’17.

Keep in mind that the number of entries includes those swimmers meeting the qualifying times, plus bonus swims where applicable, and youth qualifying times where applicable.

image003

image004

These two charts are probably the best indicator of whether a country has an inclusive national philosophy (as many swimmers as can reasonably fit into the meet) or an  exclusive philosophy (only the best make the meet). On this basis, the most exclusive countries are Australia, Japan, Great Britain and Canada.  Leaning towards the inclusive model are Russia, South Africa, and USA.

However, notice that CAN ’17 shows a marked shift to much higher exclusivity for both women and men. The average number of swimmers per women’s event is slightly lower than even Australia.  What is most concerning, however, is the average number for Canadian men.  While Canadian men have struggled on the world scene lately, the 2017 Trials have only an average of 28 men per Olympic event.

 

Country Analysis

There appear to be two very different philosophies here.

Inclusive)  Get the largest number of swimmers into the championships, using the least restrictive means possible. The idea seems to be to generate excitement throughout the system by making this level of competition more accessible. This effectively increases the pool of swimmers for talent identification, and gives more swimmers experience at this higher level.

Exclusive)  Restrict the meet to be far smaller than capacity. Include only the top level swimmers in the country. The idea seems to be to reward these swimmers by having an exclusive and prestigious championships.  Within some countries, this philosophy has been adopted under the premise that swimmers will swim to the time standard. If you make qualifying times faster, and the swimmers will become faster.

 

Inclusive Countries

USA

In my opinion, the US has the best national championship model in the world.  While the qualifying times are the hardest in the world, the US also has roughly 400,000 swimmers and an amazing set of development systems – summer programs, high school, college – to help feed this system. Interestingly, all three systems are built around Short Course swimming.

US nationals/trials are significantly larger than any other country in this study, while at the same time the most competitive.  They hold both SC and LC nationals, and allow both SC and LC qualifying for each, which makes perfect sense given their incredibly strong SC programs.  Interestingly, they don’t have special youth qualifying times, but they do have special youth bonus swim qualifying times.

 

South Africa

South Africa has the easiest qualifying times of the group of countries in this study, and has what appears to be a relatively small swimming population. Taken together this points towards a very inclusive philosophy.  SA have youth qualifying times, and so their nationals is a curious mix of world class times along with relatively mediocre age group times.  An inclusive philosophy is definitely the right method here, as an exclusive meet would field far too few swimmers.

 

Russia

Russia appears to be marginally Inclusive.  They have moderately hard qualifying times, but when you take into account their large population base and long history as a top swimming nation, their nationals should be huge. The fact that their nationals involves just over half the number of swimmers as the US indicates that some other unknown factors are at play here.

 

Exclusive Countries

Australia

The data for this study shows that Australia is special in a two ways.

1)  Australia has the distinction of have the lowest average number of entries per event at their nationals, of the countries in this study. This is due to tough qualifying times, no bonus swims and no youth qualifying times. Together, this puts them in clear contrast with the open and welcoming style of US nationals.

2)  Australia has the highest popularity (as seen in the table at the top), with roughly 1 swimmer for every 400 Australians.

The question here is why, with their abundance of talent and evident popularity as a sport, do they go exclusive instead of the more embracing style as shown by the US.  The answer may lie in the fact that they don’t feel the need to be more embracing due to that popularity.  However, given some problems over the last few 4-year cycles, Australia should perhaps be looking to be more inclusive, thereby providing more high level experience to their up and coming swimmers.

 

Japan

It’s probably due to language barriers, but I just couldn’t find much information about Japan Swimming – things like qualifying times, bonus swim structure, youth qualifying times. I was only able to find results, and so I’ve been able to determine average number of swimmers per event. This data shows Japan as having among the lowest numbers in this study.

Anecdotally, however, it has long been known that Japan has very tough qualifying times.   When you couple this with their thriving competitive swimming scene, you end up with an incredibly fast meet right from first to last.

It may be Japanese culture that helped to form this model of a highly prestigious meet, as opposed to a more inclusive one. It would be interesting to see the depth of Japanese swimming, but that will only happen if they eased off on their qualifying times.

 

Great Britain

Great Britain is similar to Australia in having very tough qualifying times, leading to low numbers of swimmers in their nationals/trials. They are also similar to Australia in swimming being quite popular as a sport.  The problem here is seen in the number of Olympic medals over the last 3 years. Great Britain hasn’t had the same level of success as powerhouse Australia, or even the fast-rising Japanese system.

It is possible that, like Australia, swimming’s popularity makes them think they don’t have to have an inclusive meet to maintain excitement in the sport. However, it could be argued that a far more inclusive meet might give some young promising swimmers more exposure and experience that could lead to great results when they hit their 20s.

One other note. Great Britain holds their Trials in early April. For their university swimmers this is exam time, and probably the worst possible time of the year to prepare for and attend a week long meet.

 

Canada – 2016 Olympic Trials

Canadian qualifying times are moderately hard, and in fact harder than Australia.  Average number of swimmers per event are slightly larger than Australia, Japan and Great Britain. Qualifying is LC only, with no bonus swims.

The medal count over the last 3 Olympics shows that Canada is basically a slightly weaker version of Great Britain. And so the same argument applies – why have an exclusive meet if you don’t have true international contenders in every event.  Why not make the meet more inclusive in order to give young promising swimmers more exposure and experience?

Canada also has 2 unique aspects to their nationals model.

1) They have mandated that all national AND provincial competitions must be LC only. No SC championship meets. This is very odd for a country where many, if not most, clubs train exclusively SC.

2)  Canada has youth qualifying times, but its only for surprisingly young swimmers. Instead of special qualifying times for the usual 18&Under swimmers, Canada only considers girls born in 2002 and 2003 and boys born in 2001 and 2002. Each year has their own set of qualifying times for the 2017 Canadian Swimming Trials.  You can see from the qualifying times chart near the top of this article that G2002 (14-15 yrs old) are basically the same as Australian and Russian senior qualifying times.  G2003 (13-14 yrs old) are harder than South African senior times. B2001 (15-16 yrs old) are actually harder than Great Britains B1999+ times.

The natural conclusion here is that early maturing Canadian swimmers are given very high priority, while late maturing swimmers are pretty much on their own. Given that elite swimmers tend to be in the early to mid 20s (see here), this emphasis on early fast swimming seems misplaced at best, and at odds with the available data concerning elite ages. We want these swimmers swimming well into their 20s, which is literally a decade down the road.

It would make much more sense to me for Canada to ease off on qualifying times and add reasonable 18&U times in order to roughly double the size of the meet.  Too many swimmers are being deprived of national exposure and experience.

As mentioned above regarding Great Britain, Canada also holds their Trials in early April. For their university swimmers this is exam time, and probably the worst possible time of the year to prepare for and attend a week long meet.

 

Canada – 2017 Trials

While acknowledging that Olympic Trials are always more popular than non-Olympic year trials, the dropoff in swimmer numbers here is troublesome. Canada seems to have doubled down on the exclusivity concept, to the point where the average men’s event will only have 3 heats. Considering the rebuilding effort needed on the men’s side, this really doesn’t make sense. Canada needs more swimming men to get high level exposure and experience, and to build more excitement throughout the country. They need more clubs with swimmers at the trials, so that the excitement can travel throughout the team.  These trials will have little relevance and provide little excitement for most teams across the country.

 

And lastly, we have China.

As is usual with much of China, their sporting system is generally cloaked in secrecy.  For instance, I couldn’t find results or really anything about their championship meets.  However, given a population of roughly 1.4 billion people – over 4 times the US – and a reasonably effective early sports identification system, we can assume they have many more swimmers than even the US.  China appears to have all the right ingredients to have a nationals model similar or even more effective than the US. But somehow it doesn’t seem to be the case.

China only allows LC qualifying times for LC nationals, and allows unlimited bonus swims.  Their qualifying times are quite tough. But given their population this should result in a competitive racing atmosphere equal to any country in the world. Without knowing more, however, it’s very hard to categorize China.

 

Summary

It’s hard to argue with the national championship model that the US uses. If any country could afford to have a small elite meet, it’s the US.  However, their choice to have an inclusive meet with as many swimmers as possible serves to generate excitement across the whole country, and gives more swimmers more national experience.   More swimmers and more clubs end up getting swept up in the hype. And each of those swimmers become heroes to the other swimmers in their clubs.

At the other extreme is the concept that an elite meet and faster qualifying times will automatically lead to faster swimmers. I’m not aware of any studies that support this contentious stance.

We can also see with the Canada’s 2017 Trials, that this exclusive philosophy can quickly deflate swimmer numbers, making the meet so exclusive as to be almost irrelevant for most swimmers.

If anyone wishes to find the necessary information for their own country, and then apply a similar analysis, I’d love to see it!

 

 

Edit: Apr 3/17.  Removed reference to Japan Trials taking place during exam time for university swimmers. This was incorrect.

 

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12 comments

  1. Anonymous · · Reply

    Swim mum from the UK. Love, love, love this. So true on so many levels. Our governing body are not interested in talent identification and nurturing younger swimmers, just those who post the fastest times who usually then quit (over trained at a young age, early puberty etc). If only they gave more younger swimmers an opportunity to compete at the same championships as their idols they may be more inclined to persevere with training and feel that these meets are achievable for them and where they may actually have someone looking at their potential and not just their times. National championships should be full of swimmers and spectators who can be held in high esteem in their clubs for being at that level.

    1. Thanks Swim mum, We agree completely. We have to nurture our swimmers because we want them loving the sport into their 20s. And nothing does that better than positive feedback and celebrating accomplishments. Overly restrictive nationals does the opposite. The US has an incredibly inclusive model. We should be following their lead.

  2. Brian Clark · · Reply

    There are some interesting stats here to look at. However, I have some issues with your methodology. Taking the US and Australia. The U.S. has 120 swimmers per event with a swimming base of 400,000+. Australia has about 42 swimmers per event with a swimming base of about 60,000+. This means that they have 0.0007 swimmers per event at Trials for each swimmer per the total swimming population. The US has 0.0003. So if the US had swimmers at the Trials at the rate Australia does, we would have approximately 280 swimmers per event at Trials. So if you look at it that way, we (I am an American coach) are much more exclusive than Australia, rather than more inclusive.

    I am not exactly saying you are wrong. We put in a fair amount of swimmers given the meet capacity, but you could certainly look at it another way and say that we are exclusive and other countries are inclusive.

    1. Thanks Brian, that’s a fair enough viewpoint. And I specifically mentioned popularity to raise the idea that it’s different in different countries. As you point out, Australian swimming is very popular. But high popularity in a small population isn’t always enough. They need to do everything they can to make it more popular and more relevant.

      I took the viewpoint that a meet is a product with similar limitations for every country. You can only fit so many swimmers and so many races into a meet. That lead to my definition of inclusive as filling the meet as much as possible, and exclusive as being much smaller than capacity.

      But even further than that is the ridiculous concept behind exclusive championships that lowering qualifying times will, by itself, make everyone swim faster. That’s at the very heart of that philosophy. The US could easily lower qualifying times and still have a large meet. But you don’t do that. You make the meet inclusively large and exciting and relevant. If you noticed the 2017 Canadian numbers, our meet will be insanely small. And because of that, it will be largely irrelevant to the vast majority of clubs across the country.

      1. Brian Clark · ·

        Rick:

        I entirely agree with your viewpoint that the meet should be inclusive. I think that is very important. I also completely agree that lowering qualifying times will not make everyone faster. I think that is a viewpoint that is incorrect.

        I will also say that a smaller meet and harder time standards is a fight that is fought every quadrennium. There are certain elite coaches that argue hard for that every time. I do not think that is what is best for swimming in the long run.

        So, fight the good fight in Canada. Make the meet bigger, let more swimmers get experience. 12 years down the road, your swimming will be the better for it.

        My main point was just that you should not overestimate our inclusiveness. We could do better.

        Brian

      2. I love your last line, Brian. The idea that we could always do better is incredibly powerful.

        The problem in Canada is that the powers-that-be don’t appear to be open to other ideas. They very effectively ignore any efforts to make changes. And so the good fight continues…

  3. Mat Luebbers · · Reply

    Interesting work!

    2016 Japan Nationals QTS: http://swim.or.jp/upfiles/1473821307-16-13_JOCJOsummer0715.pdf
    The meet is an age-group meet. The strokes are
    自 Free
    背 Back
    平 Breast
    バタフラ イFly
    個 IM
    男子 Male
    女子 Female
    短水路 SCM QT
    長水路 LCM QT

  4. Gold Medal to Canadian Swimming for exclusivity! British Nationals psych sheets at:

    https://www.swimmingresults.org/events/bstrials17/programme.pdf

    In defense of Swimming Canada, they must have a top level statistician working for them – has she identified some new concept that demonstrates that decreasing the size of the competitive group (magically) increases the probability of identifying a new swimmers capable of performing at National level meets? Congratulations on that!

    1. The early April entry lists are now out for Canada, Australia and Britain. All 3 countries hold exclusive championships. There are some interesting changes. The most notable being GBR increasing swimmer numbers considerably. Still not even half of US numbers, but a move in the right direction.

      GBR has increased the numbers by about 20%
      Women ’16 46 ’17 57
      Men ’16 46 ’17 54

      CAN as shown in the article has drastically reduced numbers
      Women ’16 52 ’17 34
      Men ’16 58 ’17 28

      AUS has also drastically reduced numbers
      Women ’16 36 ’17 29
      Men ’16 44 ’17 33

  5. About The Value of Bonus Swims:

    Dropping Bonus Sims is one of the many changes to that SNC has mandated for Nationals, Trials, Eastern and Western competitions. SNC’s justification for dropping Bonus Swims was that a majority of the “Bonus Swim performances” did not produce better times and was therefore a waste of time. If SNC had applied the same logic to Nationals, Trials, Easterns and Westerns, all of the meets would have been cancelled as the failure rate range at these meets was anywhere from 75% to 80+%!

    Bonus swims at SNC meets gave our athletes an opportunity to “build out” their lists of National Standard events. Swimmers traveling to these meets from our club program normally had a success rate of over 80% with many swimmers turning in 100% PBs.

    Finally, removing Bonus Swims from SNC meets has had a major negative impact on the cost/benefit for these meets. Trials for April 2017 are being run in Victoria BC. Swimmers from Eastern Canada are faced with a meet expense of nearly $2,000.00 including an entry fee of $135.00. The SNC expectation appears to be that the meet is so important, that qualified swimmers with one or two swims will enter the meet.

    A majority of the swimmers attending the meet will do a full prep in an attempt to swim PBs in the best one or two events. A very strong argument can be made that swimmers turning in PBs in their best events are also ready to swim PBs in other events which could easily result in leaving the meet with additional National standards for the next major SNC competition. SNCs decision to remove Bonus Swims limits development and does nothing to promote Canadian Swimming.

    What to do about the situation? SNC is clearly not interested in opinions from “the field” on this subject so an increasing number of athletes and finding alternative competitions. SNC is in effect devaluing their National Meet Program.

  6. Very interesting Rick

  7. […] OK, enough about the importance of fun and building a base.  Let’s talk about how Swimming Australia deals with its top swimmers. Not too long ago I wrote about National Championship philosophies for a group of swimming countries (see here). […]

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