Are There Now Too Many Olympic Swimming Events?

Photos Courtesy: USA TODAY Sports

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 women’s 1500 free—mostly 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 final—including 2016 10k gold medalist Sharon Van Rouwendaal—had even turned for the last 50.

ledecky-400fr-prelims-2016-rio-olympics

Photo Courtesy: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

So, with another event on the program that most expect Ledecky will win easily—even if the 2020 Games are three years away—it won’t 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.

That’s a lot of gold medals. In fact, only one person has ever won more—Michael 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 discipline—and still managing to come out on top—has been nothing short of remarkable.

For Olympic fans who follow swimming casually every four years, it’s 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?

usain-bolt-rio

Photo Courtesy: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

An SB Nation article from 2012 claimed that “21 medals in virtually any other sport would equate to less than a dozen,” 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 “inordinate amount of opportunities for swimmers to medal.”

“Fewer 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.”

This past summer, a post on Reddit called for swimming’s event total to be chopped because swimmers “have been entering eight, even nine events in one Olympics” and can “win more medals in one Olympics than most athletes will in their entire careers.”

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.

adam-peaty-100br-prelims-world-record

Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

In Rio, the single most dominant individual performance of the Games came from not Ledecky but Great Britain’s Adam Peaty, who won gold in the men’s 100 breast by 1.56 seconds—and didn’t swim any other individual event all week. He eventually did pick up a silver on Britain’s medley relay.

Outsiders may not understand it, but swimming is that specialized. The addition of the women’s 1500 free and men’s 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. It’s not impossible to do both, but it’s 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 years’ time.

“This is the Olympics. They’re still the best swimmers in the world. I don’t think it devalues the medal,” longtime NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said on Off Deck.

“You’re still talking about the cream rising to the top. Because it’s every four years, it’s not an easy journey for an Olympic athlete. We don’t have a World Series, a Super Bowl that’s every year. Because that Olympic journey is four years in the making, I don’t think anything that happens at the Olympic Games is devalued.”

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.

101 Comments

101 comments

  1. Maranda Bell

    They should leave it alone and I think the other events would be great. Swimming really shines every 4 years and swimmers deserve it they put in years of hard work to get to the Olympics

  2. Roland Raffin

    No swimming is one of the main draws and ratings! Wish they added the 50 sprints in all the events!

  3. Russell Simpson

    No. Not enough as 50m sprints need to be added!?????‍♀️?

  4. Dave LaBerge

    No. The 1500 for women should have been in the games for at least the last 40 years

  5. Dirk Smith

    The only thing better than swimming is more swimming!!

  6. Mark Grainge

    You’ve just got to look at the Olympic program to notice that the swimming is always before athletics. It’s a huge draw! Athletes/swimmers racing in an environment where everyone can see the whole race, camera(wo)men capturing everything for the TV networks so the people at home can see EVERYTHING, commentators commentating on ALL the action.
    Its exciting as it’s as head-to-head as it gets.

  7. Pablo Valedon

    Absolutely not, the more the better??

  8. Brian Cameron

    The additional events make it perfect!

  9. Naveh Eldar

    Swimming gets the attention it deserves once every FOUR years, so no…there aren’t too many events. When ratings go down for swimming is when you can even ASK that question. Personally I’d like to see 50’s in the other 3 strokes added.

  10. Craig Stump

    Mixed relays are a dopey stunt. Otherwise, the number of event s reflects the true diversity of a great sport.

    • Thomas Kane

      Better to have a 200 medley relay.

  11. Eric Michael Stencovage

    Holy cow, the morons who wrote those articles are dumb.

    It doesn’t matter how many chances you get: you still have to be good enough to win them all.

    All this “unfair” pc crap needs to go. I’m sick of morons like this.

  12. Dennis Brown

    Nope. They could add 3 more events.

  13. Linda Engledow

    Nope! Never enough swimming events for me!

  14. Trahan Michael Aaron

    No there’s not enough swimming there also needs to be the 50’s in breast, fly and back. There needs to be more swimming and less ribbon and baton twirling and a few other things that I can think of but I’m on limited space .

  15. avatar
    Mike Broadway

    The decision should NOT be made by non swimming members of the public or the media. It has to come from Fina and the IOC and the swimming community, based on what’s best for swimming, not what the networks want.

  16. It’s the dumbest decision in years! More long distance??? Why scare people away on purpose? And mix-relays… OMG! 🙁
    The 50s would have made scense. But more long distance………… Still hoping it’s a joke!

    • Mary-Helen Hopkins

      I feel strongly that Katie deserves her chance to shine in an Olympic 1500!

    • Maybe we should think about the spectators a little?! Besides swimmers, who wants to endure a 1500 with Katie taking point after 75m.?! Or an 800, with Platrineri doing the same?! It’s a killer. It’s got nothing to do with Katie. She’s amazing. It’s got something to do with how we sell our sport!
      And by the way… If it comes down to that, shouldn’t the sprinters have as much right to shine?! And maybe that would be a bit more interesting for the crowd watching.

    • Eric Palmer

      Id watch it. Gives me time to drink a beer or two. ??Why ya care so much?

    • Mary-Helen Hopkins

      Morten Aurvig Lystlund Brøndum , I would welcome the opportunity to watch Katie swim the 1500 – she could even lap members of the “cream of the crop” – there’s nothing boring about that!!

    • Marcelo Menezes

      Agreed! More long distance mixed relays is absolutely ridiculous

    • Kalina Grace Emaus

      The top 4-6 100 freestylers and 200 freestylers per gender in the United States get a chance to go to the Olympics due to relay potential. Until this was passed only 2 distance swimmers would have the opportunity. This opens up new chances for athletes that are more endurance based than sprint. Spectators include current and past swimmers who swim the mile as a registered USA and college swimming event. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think spectators can learn a lot from the bravery of the athletes who swim the mile and could spark some inspiration that they can to do some wonderful things to make a positive impact!

    • Shaa Na

      Mixed relays sounds like a good event IN ADDITION to the male and female events. It would make for a very interesting and tactical race. And bring in the 1500m for women too. There’s a lot of ways Olympic swimming can improve

    • Ange Leithhead

      I would love to see women swimming the 1500, and mixed relays would be a great attraction for people who want to see both men and women compete in the same event at the same level, with and against each other rather than side by side.

    • Are you seriously claiming, that a non-swimmer would find an additional 1500 and 800 interesting?! That, that would boost the ticket-sale? Not you and me, but non-swimmers?? That our sport, which I claim is challenged when it comes to media-interest and sponsors, would consider investing further in swimming, because of additional long distance races?! Katie might sell, yes. She’s amazing!! But she can’t carry the sport on her one!

    • About the mixed relays. I don’t know what to say…. Fair enough. You find it interesting. I think it’s down right ridicoulus!

  17. Jennette Hawk-Gonzalez

    Swimming is one of the biggest sports at the Olympics, it’s one I’ll always look forward to watching

  18. Dave Hoover

    Soon it’ll be mixed relay’s, synchronized 200 fly, they bring back the 200m Obstacle race that was discontinued in 1900 and add a more intricate Swim Jitsu event, etc. Soon mere average athletes will be olympic athletes. Winter sports have already gone that direction, like Ski Cross which is for old washed up skiers who can’t cut the mustard in the traditional Alpine events anymore.

  19. No not at all. The number of events is not to bad but is it really necessary to swim the same event three times? I think a preliminary heats and then two heats for finals is enough. The semi heats are not needed.

  20. Tanya Dejager

    Not enough events, need to add the 50’s as well in back, breast, fly .

  21. Kyle C Pigman

    No. We need the Women’s 1500 meter Freestyle, Men’s 800 meter Freestyle, 4×100 Mixed Freestyle Relay, 4×200 Mixed Freestyle Relay, and 4×100 Mixed Medley Relay in the Olympics.

  22. Bethany A Olson

    No! Need the other 50 sprint events added and increase the athlete limit!

  23. Erick Garcia

    I’m ok with more swimming events, they are to many great swimmers that don’t make to the international stage.

  24. Rebecca Maccaro

    I dont agree with adding the 50 sprint events in anything but free which we already have. We dont swim 50s in meets after a certain age so why would they be put in as an event?

    • Bryan Craig

      In USA correct but nowhere else on earth

  25. Jimmy Smith

    Womens 1500, mens 800 finally. Mixed relay, could live without it, but should be interesting. 50’s… just say no.

  26. avatar

    As long as the sport is “clean” and entertaining, swim events are great!

  27. Shaa Na

    Too many? There’s not enough. Give women the option to compete in the 1500m freestyle and men the option to compete in the 800m freestyle and then I’ll be content.

  28. Donald Jensen

    Keep the swimming events coming. Along with diving. Definitely need more in depth coverage by American TV networks and cable networks

  29. Kristine Walker

    Let’s not forget synchronized swimming .., we need to add more like mixed duet, which would lead to mix pairs!

  30. Brett Davies

    Personally I don’ t think there are enough events. I would like to see the 50 in all strokes added. On the other hand I think we can do without the mixed relays.

  31. Jeff Guest

    Somehow posting this question on a Swimming site really seems dumb. Of course people subscribed here will overwhelmingly say “more Swimming? Yes please.” Jeesh.

  32. Steve Greenfield

    There are 44 track and field events so we need to add the extra 3 sprints please

  33. Kerri Christensen

    Never to many events for the swimming. They should have 50m for all strokes …also mens 800 fs and womens 1500 fs

  34. Juan Carlos Cordova

    Leave Michael Phelps alone you evil jungle girl Katie Ledecky Mowgli

  35. avatar
    Julie

    Swimmers deserve the recognition. I guess the track and field world has forgotten Carl Lewis who won golding running and the long jump.

Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is the host of Swimming World TV and a staff writer. A contributor to Swimming World since 2009, he has covered NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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