Have we got a chance in the backstroke? Or will we sink without trace? As one of FT’s diligent aquatic correspondents I’ve put together a quick guide to the swimming events – the form, the favourites and whether Great Britain has a minnow’s chance at winning anything at all. So if you think an Individual Medley is something off the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, read on!

To start you off, here’s a useful run-down of the rules in swimming competitions. The Olympic-specific bits are as follows:

– No 50m events except for the freestyle.
– Up to two swimmers per country are allowed to enter each individual event.
– 50m, 100m and 200m events have heats, semi-finals and a final; 400m, 800m and 1500m events just have heats and a final.
– The 10km is a new event this year, and is going to be held in the rowing lake, the water quality of which has been upgraded from ‘too polluted for any human use’ to ‘suitable for industrial use and entertainment without direct touch of human skin’.

Swimming History 101

If you haven’t been paying attention, for the last decade or so swimming has been a straight-up contest between the USA and Australia. Before that the Americans were totally dominant, and from the mid-seventies up until 1989 the communist bloc was pumping its poor ladies full of steroids. Here’s the swimming medal table for the last five Olympiads:

  United States Australia Russia/Eastern Europe*
Athens 2004 28 15 11
Sydney 2000 33 18 13
Atlanta 1996 26 12 14
Barcelona 1992 27 9 20
Seoul 1988 18 3 45

(*For the purposes of this table I’ve tallied up the medals for Russia/CIS/Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland and East Germany.)

Since 1992, most of the Russian/Eastern European medals shown above were won by a handful of superstar multi-medallists such as Krisztina Egerszegi (HUN), Alex Popov & Denis Pankratov (both RUS) and Yana Klochkova (UKR), whereas the American and Australian teams have unmatchable depth of talent – several crestfallen swimmers broke the existing world record in their Olympic trials this year but didn’t make the team as they still came in third! In fact, check out the relay team medal table (in brackets are the number of gold relay medals won):

  United States Australia Russia/Eastern Europe
Athens 2004 6 (3) 3 (2) 0
Sydney 2000 6 (4) 5 (2) 0
Atlanta 1996 6 (6!) 3 (0) 2 (0)
Barcelona 1992 5 (4) 0 4 (1)
Seoul 1988 5 (3) 0 7 (2)

Australia’s rise to power in world swimming shows absolutely no signs of stopping – this year their women’s team may well overtake the Americans. However, until the Herculean Michael Phelps retires the Aussie men will have to settle for second best.

Of course other countries partake in swimming too: Italy, France and the Netherlands have several world-class freestyle swimmers each, Japan is very strong where breaststroke is concerned and – amazingly – the UK women are finally starting to have an impact! What’s going on?

Team GB: sink or swim?

British swimming has been splashing about in the shallow end with its armbands on for decades. For comparison with the tables above, Team GB has won 8 swimming medals IN TOTAL since 1988 and NONE of those were by women – relying on the male breaststrokers and distance freestylers to scrape the odd medal.

We have historically performed very well at short course (25m pool) events, but when it came to the big competitions (all in 50m pools) we were left in the starting blocks. This wasn’t due to a lack of talent or even hard work: many of our top swimmers had lost the race before they even arrived at the pool. Add this poor psychology to our dire facilities and a non-existent national coaching programme and you can start to see why our best swimmmers would be off training on their own in the US or Canada. For an ‘individual’ sport, you might be surprised at the importance of being part of a strong team for swimmers, both in training and racing. Something had to be done to revive the UK’s fortunes.

Step up Bill Sweetenham, a successful Australian youth coach who shook things up a little in the GB camp after their dismal performance in Sydney 2000. Not all the swimmers were in favour of the changes, and there was a lot of muttering in high-up places about what exactly was going on. But Bill’s talent clearly lay in nurturing young hopefuls and instilling into them the proper competitive mindset needed to be the best in the world. The media obviously expected instant results (despite Sweetenham’s weary explanation that, as with Australia, it would take a while to build up a successful team) and as such Bill has since departed for pastures mysterious (‘decided not to renew his contract’). But he set the wheels in motion, and the young Brits are now chomping at the bit for the chance to show what they can do.

The Girls

Our female freestylers are our best shot for a gold medal – yes, I said GOLD! Teenager Rebecca Adlington is ranked no.1 in the world this year for the 800m. She is terrifyingly fast even when in heavy training, and hopefully will do better than Becky Cooke’s 6th place over the same distance in 2004. Have a look at how her best time measures up:

Name Time Year
R. Adlington (GBR) 8:19:22 2008 (Personal Best)
J. Evans (USA) 8:16.22 1989 (World Record)
A. Shibata (JAP) 8:24.54 2004 (Olympic Gold)

Rebecca’s 8.19 is the fourth fastest time EVER, and she’s still got plenty more in the tank – her sights are set on the 400m as well. If she can hold off the Americans and Italians then HURRAY, double-medallicious!

Fran Halsall is a great little sprinter and could be up for a medal in the 50m or the 100m – world record holder Libby Trickett (AUS) probably has the gold sewn up here but the rest of the field is wide open. Caitlin McClatchey had a difficult 2007 and has sat just outside the world top ten this year for the 200m. However she clearly has a taste for victory after her two golds at the 2006 Commonwealths (beating Libby in a huge upset for the Australians), and has been working very hard this year.

Factor in Jo Jackson and Mel Marshall – solid world-class sprinters both – and we have the makings of our best 4x200m free team since well, ever. The Americans aren’t exactly quaking in their boots (not when they keep breaking the world record every other competition), but the Australians are apparently ‘not writing us off’! Blimey!

Elsewhere, Hannah Miley should definitely make the 400m Individual Medley final and could well get a medal if she can break her own European record, but she’ll have to absolutely swim out of her skin to do it. Her 4.33 time would have been a world record in Athens, but Katie Hoff (USA) and Stephanie Rice (AUS) will both be aiming to win in 4.30 or under. Jemma Lowe should be a finalist for the 200m butterfly and may well get a medal there too, but in the backstroke and breaststroke we’re still some way off the international pace for now.

The Boys

Cardiff lad David Davies seems to be on reasonable form to repeat his Athens bronze in the 1500m, though it’s hard to see anyone beating the legendary Grant Hackett (AUS) – Grant is looking for his third 1500m gold in three Olympics and will be unstoppable, barring him being run over by a bus or something. David is also swimming in the new 10km open water event – how this will go is anyone’s guess, especially as David is Scared of fish: “They’re not human. They don’t walk around. They’re different.” Oh dear!

Liam Tancock, Gregor Tait and James Goddard are all great backstrokers and Gregor at least should make the 200m final, but I fear the Americans are just going to be too strong for them. Liam holds the world record for the 50m backstroke but unfortunately that’s not an Olympic event. Sorry Liam! Chin up though, with a bit of luck you or James might get a bronze in the 200m IM instead?

Holding up the British men’s breaststroke tradition, Chris Cook has been rising up through the world top 20 for a couple of years now. He’s not that far off the top pace and won the 100m and 200m at the 2006 Commonwealths, but again he’ll have to pull out something spectacular to beat the Americans and the Japanese.

But you can’t even see their faces!

Swimming may just be a bunch of dudes going up and down in a pool, but it has its fair share of drama – the hot topic this year has been the Speedo LZR swimsuit which has apparently helped break FORTY-EIGHT world records this year. Some are calling it a cover-up for extensive doping, but I think it’s simply that Speedo has made a massive leap in its technology. If some swimmers want to take advantage of that then fine. Everyone else will just have to swim faster.

Still on the drugs theme, American breastroker Jessica Hardy discovered she had tested positive for clenbuterol (an asthma medication that improves lung capacity) just last week. She has tearfully denied everything, but it’s too late for appeals – she’s out.

There’s been a lot of hoo-haa about the finals being raced in the morning session (not just swimming – gymnastics too). This is unheard of in pretty much any sporting event (although a few morning finals were held in 1988 at Seoul), and is only happening in Beijing because NBC have signed a $3.5 BILLION dollar deal with the IOC so the Americans can watch it all at prime time. The Australians are NOT happy.

As well as their superhero Michael Phelps (who has been seen sporting a Mark Spitz ‘tache this week), the Americans will be spending their evenings watching Dara Torres, who at age 41 is competing in her fifth Olympics. Her first one was in 1984! She’s had more comebacks than All Saints. Unfortunately for Dara, last week her coach was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder and may only have days left to live. Yikes! Still, she’s not had it quite as bad as Laure Manaudou, who has had ‘lewd pictures’ of herself spread around the internet (allegedly) by her ex! The French freestyler has had a rotten year of it anyway, and has pulled out of 200m (in which she is the world champion). In fact, she’s thinking of packing in the freestyle altogether and switching to backstroke. Whatever you say, Laure!

Other brave soldiers: breaststroker Eric Shanteau was diagnosed with testicular cancer a week before the American Trials, but has decided he is going to swim the 200m anyway instead of going for surgery (!); world-record holder Liesel Jones has been on a soup-only diet for the last month (seriously, these breaststrokers need their heads looking at); Australian golden couple Eamon Sullivan and Stephanie Rice split up a couple of days ago and have lost all their joint sponsorship deals in the process (my heart bleeds for them, it really does) and last but not least, Kosuke Kitajima says that the food at the Olympic village is “the tastiest food I’ve ever eaten at any athletes’ village I have stayed at. I have gargled with the tap water too and that was fine I’m sure.” However there are NO BATHTUBS! The swimmers are unable to immerse themselves in water! Oh wait.

The Medal Contenders

Enough wittering. Here’s a quick run-down of my medal tips in each event:


Event World No. 1 Contender Contender
50m Freestyle Eamon Sullivan (AUS) Alain Bernard (FRA) Gary Weber-Gale (USA)
100m Freestyle Alain Bernard (FRA) Eamon Sullivan (AUS) Jason Lezak (USA)
200m Freestyle Michael Phelps (USA) Peter Van DerKaay (USA) Ryan Lochte (USA)
400m Freestyle Grant Hackett (AUS) Larsen Jensen (USA) Tae Hwan Park (KOR)
1500m Freestyle Peter Van DerKaay (USA) Grant Hackett (AUS) David Davies (GBR)
10k Open Water Vladimir Dyatchin (RUS) Petar Stoychev (BUL) David Davies (GBR)
100m Butterfly Michael Phelps (USA) Ian Crocker (USA) Fred Bousquet (FRA)
200m Butterfly Michael Phelps (USA) Gill Stoval (USA) Peng Wu (CHN)
100m Backstroke Aaron Piersol (USA) Matt Grevers (USA) Helge Meeuw (GER)
200m Backstroke Aaron Piersol (USA) Ryan Lochte (USA) Ryosuke Irie (JPN)
100m Breaststroke Brendan Hansen (USA) Kosuke Kitajima (JAP) Chris Cook (GBR)
200m Breaststroke Kosuke Kitajima (JAP) Alexander Oen Dale (NOR) Brent Rickard (AUS)
200m Individual Medley Michael Phelps (USA) Laszlo Cseh (HUN) Ryan Lochte (USA)
400m Individual Medley Michael Phelps (USA) Ryan Lochte (USA) Laszlo Cseh (HUN)


Event World No. 1 Contender Contender
50m Freestyle Libby Trickett (AUS) Marleen Veldhuis (NED) Dara Torres (USA)
100m Freestyle Libby Trickett (AUS) Britta Steffen (GER) Cate Campbell (AUS)
200m Freestyle Katie Hoff (USA) Sara Isakovic (SLO) Federica Pellegrini (ITA)
400m Freestyle Federica Pellegrini (ITA) Katie Hoff (USA) Laure Manadou (FRA)
800m Freestyle Rebecca Adlington (GBR) Kate Ziegler (USA) Katie Hoff (USA)
10k Open Water Larisa Ilchenko (RUS) Edith van Dijk (NED) Chloe Sutton (USA)
100m Butterfly Libby Trickett (AUS) Jessica Schipper (AUS) Christine Magnuson (USA)
200m Butterfly Yuko Nakanishi (JAP) Jessica Schipper (AUS) Jemma Lowe (GBR)
100m Backstroke Natalie Coughlin (USA) Margaret Hoelzer (USA) Kirsty Coventry (ZIM)
200m Backstroke Margaret Hoelzer (USA) Laure Manaudou (FRA) Kirsty Coventry (ZIM)
100m Breaststroke Liesl Jones (AUS) Tarnee White (AUS) Rebecca Soni (USA)
200m Breaststroke Liesl Jones (AUS) Rebecca Soni (USA) Megumi Taneda (JPN)
200m Individual Medley Stephanie Rice (AUS) Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) Katie Hoff (USA)
400m Individual Medley Katie Hoff (USA) Stephanie Rice (AUS) Hannah Miley (GBR)

The relay events will be dominated by the United States, with competition from the Italian and French men, and the Australian and British women.

And that’s your lot! Watch out for more updates once the Games get underway!