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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.