Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Of the three new Olympic swimming events added to the program this week, none will draw more attention in 2020 in Tokyo than the womenâs 1500 freeâmostly because of the woman who won the race by almost 15 seconds at the 2015 World Championships.
Yes, as dominant as Katie Ledecky was in the 400 and 800 free in Rio, the margin could be even greater in the 1500 free. In that World title race two years ago, she finished the race before three swimmers in the finalâincluding 2016 10k gold medalist Sharon Van Rouwendaalâhad even turned for the last 50.
So, with another event on the program that most expect Ledecky will win easilyâeven if the 2020 Games are three years awayâit wonât be at all surprising if she bags another substantial medal haul in Tokyo. Defending all her titles from Rio plus winning gold in the 1500 would give Ledecky ten career Olympic golds.
Thatâs a lot of gold medals. In fact, only one person has ever won moreâMichael Phelps, who has 23.
Phelps has made the art of swimming and winning multiple events at an Olympics seem downright routine, competing in three to five individual events plus three relays in four straight Games. At the same time, fellow Americans Natalie Coughlin, Ryan Lochte, Katie Hoff, Missy Franklin and now Ledecky have all won Olympic medals in a wide variety of races.
For big-time swimming fans, watching Phelps race day after day under the spotlight of the Olympics with fresh competitors waiting in each new disciplineâand still managing to come out on topâhas been nothing short of remarkable.
For Olympic fans who follow swimming casually every four years, itâs a sign that swimming has too many events. And if these people thought 32 events was excessive, what will they have to say about 35?
An SB Nation article from 2012 claimed that â21 medals in virtually any other sport would equate to less than a dozen,â noting that Phelps won three gold medals in 200-meter races in 2008 while track star Usain Bolt had only one opportunity to win the 200-meter dash.
In the same year, a New York Times opinion piece called for the Olympics to cut down to 18 swimming events, eliminating the 100-meter races for each stroke, the 200 IM and all but two freestyle races per gender. That way, there would be no âinordinate amount of opportunities for swimmers to medal.â
âFewer events would create greater competitive intensity because swimmers who hope to medal more than once must broaden their focus rather than gravitating toward a specialty. The changes would also make the medals more meaningful and better highlight the most talented swimmers.â
This past summer, a post on Reddit called for swimmingâs event total to be chopped because swimmers âhave been entering eight, even nine events in one Olympicsâ and can âwin more medals in one Olympics than most athletes will in their entire careers.â
Eight or nine events in an Olympics? Clearly, the person who posted that thread had Phelps in mind.
But the reality is that the Phelpses and Ledeckys of the world are a minority, a tiny fraction of swimmers talented enough to compete across such a wide spectrum of events at a level like the Olympics.
How about Ryan Murphy, who won three gold medals in Rio swimming backstroke but has never competed internationally in any other stroke. He indicated that he plans to swim the 100 free at U.S. Nationals later this month, but he knows he has an outside shot at best at getting onto an international 400 free relay.
Milorad Cavic, the Serbian who was one hundredth away from beating Phelps in the 100 fly at the 2008 Olympic Games, had four total swims at those Games: the 100 free prelims (he scratched the semifinals) and three rounds of the 100 fly. Phelps, by comparison, had 17.
In Rio, the single most dominant individual performance of the Games came from not Ledecky but Great Britainâs Adam Peaty, who won gold in the menâs 100 breast by 1.56 secondsâand didnât swim any other individual event all week. He eventually did pick up a silver on Britainâs medley relay.
Outsiders may not understand it, but swimming is that specialized. The addition of the womenâs 1500 free and menâs 800 free will undoubtedly provide big opportunities for swimmers whose unique skill sets are geared towards those specific events.
Why would the best swimmers in some events and not others deserve a chance to be recognized at an Olympic Games?
Sure, swimming has a lot of events, but the 100 free and 100 breast have as much crossover as the 100-meter dash and the triple jump in track and field. Itâs not impossible to do both, but itâs highly, highly unusual.
Bolt, an eight-time gold medalist considered one of the greatest Olympians of all-time, has been dominant in his specific events over three straight Games, but he never attempted anything like the triple jump, the pole vault or even the 400-meter race.
But the 100-meter and 400-meter races in track are no more dissimilar than the 100 fly and 400 IM, and Phelps won gold in both of those in Beijing. No reason to look down on swimmers or their accomplishments just because of historic outliers like Phelps and Ledecky.
And no reason to look down on those who take advantage of the three new swimming events slated for Tokyo in three yearsâ time.
âThis is the Olympics. Theyâre still the best swimmers in the world. I donât think it devalues the medal,â longtime NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said on Off Deck.
âYouâre still talking about the cream rising to the top. Because itâs every four years, itâs not an easy journey for an Olympic athlete. We donât have a World Series, a Super Bowl thatâs every year. Because that Olympic journey is four years in the making, I donât think anything that happens at the Olympic Games is devalued.â
Click here to read about the positive reaction within the sport to the new Olympic swimming events. All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.