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Take Me Out to The Swim Meet, Take Me Out to the Crowd  -- July 14, 2004

by Lauren Weinstein

LONG BEACH, Calif., July 14. COTTON candy and lemonade vendors stroll through the stands touting their goods, and advertisers’ logos line the perimeter of the pool deck.

Spectators hold up hand-painted posters, while sporting their matching team apparel. The crowd sways to the loud music as Olympic legends are projected on the big screen to welcome the throngs to the event. If you weren’t paying close attention to the 50 meter, above-ground pool, constructed in the middle of the venue, it would be easy to mistake the scene for an intense Red Sox baseball game.

Entering the final evening of the Olympic Trials, the overwhelming atmosphere has been one of delight, full of twists and turns that have brought elation for some and heartbreak for others. But an interesting aspect of the 2004 trials has been its unprecedented focus on the marketing aspect- from the increased price of entering the Charter All Digital Aquatic Centre, to the multitude of advertisements.

Over the past week, these Olympic Trials in Long Beach have brought on a long-awaited change in American swimming. While many were busy cheering on their teammates, friends or heroes in the swimming pool, the sport of swimming was being morphed: the swimming venue is no longer what it used to be.

The pool itself is designed for the spectators, with not a bad seat in the house and room for 10,000. There are also VIP boxes available directly behind the blocks for those inclined to pay the right price.

Beyond the pool, in the adjacent lot, thousands of excited fans maneuver their way through sponsors’ booths. Vendors announce their latest merchandise, catching the attention of multitudes of eager young swimmers, excited parents and veteran swimming officials and coaches. They also have the option of filling out surveys to win prizes and spinning casino-like wheels for the latest Olympic Trial paraphernalia, walking away with goody bags filled to the brim.

On-lookers can feel the impact of the 2004 Olympic Trials. Perhaps it’s the unprecedented media buzz – the numerous articles, news stories or television commercials. But the environment certainly adds to the excitement. Imagine baseball games without the peanuts and cracker jacks. Or not being able to partake in the seventh inning stretch. Just as baseball’s stadiums and vendors have changed over the years, swimming is undergoing a facelift. While Australia’s Ian Thorpe throttles billboards and Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima appears in magazines, America’s swimmers are waging their battle to the mainstream spotlight that they deserve. With a new swim hero in Michael Phelps, and a hyped FINA World Championship meet that will take place in the Indiana Pacers’ basketball stadium this fall – sensational is all that can be expected..

The batter is up. Bases are loaded. What will the next pitch look like?