By Craig Lord
LONDON, May 7. BRITISH Swimming will not send a team to the European Championships in Madrid, which begin in three days, and will only enter Mark Foster in the 50 metres freestyle if the sprinter wins his second appeal against exclusion from the Great Britain Olympic team or if his case is still to be decided.
While offering a potential lifeline to Foster, who failed by 0.05 seconds to meet his Olympic qualification target over 50 metres freestyle at the British Trials in Sheffield last month and then declared himself injured, the move is a blow to his training partner Zoe Baker.
World record holder over 50 metres breaststroke, Baker, from Sheffield, had wanted to race for the European title. Having fractured a bone in her arm on the eve of racing in Sheffield and having ruled herself out of any attempt to make the Olympic team in the 100 metres breaststroke, she had hoped to compete in Madrid "so that my season wouldn't be totally wasted".
However, Bill Sweetenham, Britain's national performance director, believes Europe's event is too close to the Olympic Games to fit in with training plans and could only be considered as a consolation event for those who, through injury or illness, failed to qualify for the Olympic team and needed a second chance. Second chances could only be had in Olympic events: the 50 metres breaststroke is not part of the Olympic programme.
Two years ago, Britain did not send a senior team to the European showcase event for the first time since the inaugural championships in 1926, because LEN (Ligue Européenne de Natation), the continent's governing body for the sport, opted for dates that they knew clashed with the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Now, Sweetenham has called on LEN to review its race calendar, its showcase event having suffered loss of quality since a decision to hold it in even-years since 2000 dictated a clash with the Olympic Games. His views are shared by Germany, Europe's leading swimming nation, which is sending just nine swimmers, mainly veterans past their best.
Meanwhile, Foster, 34 this month, has asked for a second chance despite having failed to comply with selection criteria, which required all those injured or ill to submit a medical certificate to that effect before racing in Sheffield. There was no certificate and Foster's time, of 22.47 seconds, would have placed him 19th in the world last year, well outside the limit of 12th best set for Olympic selection.
Moreover, the Great Britain team physiotherapist, who Foster cited as being the man who "knew I was injured because he was treating me" is likely to tell the appeal panel that the swimmer was not being treated for an injury and that there had been no evidence of any condition that would prevent him from competing.
A Britain team source said: "If Mark wins his appeal, we're looking at up to 14 other additions. That would mean a potential team of 50. I can't see the BOA (British Olympic Association) supporting that. It would also spoil the ethos of a team who made it to Athens because they deserved it."
Last weekend in Austria, Foster continued to show inconsistent form: he won the 50 metres butterfly – a non-Olympic event – in 24.21 seconds but then failed to make the final of the 50 metres freestyle in 23.81 seconds. He won the consolation final in 22.90, which would have placed him second in the final proper behind world champion Alexander Popov, highlighting once again the fact that there are no second chances when it comes to major competitions. If he wins his appeal, he must go to Madrid and race faster than 22.42 seconds over 50 metres freestyle.
Britain team sources say that up to 14 swimmers are preparing to appeal against exclusion from the Olympic team should Foster win his case. Among those are the first four home in the 100 metres freestyle relay, who could form a relay, and Keri Anne Payne, of Stockport, who a week after the trials raced six seconds faster over 800 metres freestyle in France: her 8:34.03 was inside the Olympic qualifying time and would have placed her 12th on the world ranking list in 2003.
Payne is to be allowed by Bill Sweetenham, the national performance director, to join the Olympic team on training camps "right up to the gates of Athens". She said: "It's great of Bill to have that faith in me. I can't go to Athens but I'm only 16 and there's so much to look forward to in the future."
Meanwhile, Alsion Sheppard, the woman who became the first swimmer to make five Olympic Games – something Foster may now never do – said: "If you can't do it on the day at the Trials, the chances are that you won't be able to do it at the Olympics, where you only get one shot at it."
But Foster said: "Taking me (to Athens) is not a gamble…when other countries see I'm not entered, they will laugh."
Maybe, but most of the British swimming team are not laughing. With a new competitive culture in tow, and with 23 of the squad of 36 having qualified for individual events, many believe that there is no room for softness, especially in a swimmer who has more often failed to meet expectations on a world stage than he has lived up to them.
Foster, who has been coached by friend and former hurdler Colin Jackson since the Commonwealth Games in 2002, failed to make the qualifying time for the 50 metres freestyle at the World Championships, but made the time over 50 metres butterfly to earn him a freestyle place. He went on to win the silver medal behind Alexander Popov in Barcelona in one of the slowest 50-metre line-ups in recent times.
Sweetenham simply refers callers to the selectors on the issue. He has stated that he does not intend to "waste any more time on people who represent the past".
The future for British swimming is one in which the sudden-death Trials culture that has made the US and Australia so competitive will thrive if Sweetenham has his way. Such nations, he argues, breeds people of the calibre of Pablo Morales, the world record holder who missed out in 1988 but stuck with it and came back to win the 1992 Olympic title over 100 metres butterfly.