Greater Parity is a Good Thing for the Sport

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By John Lohn

LONDON, August 1. TAKE a look at the lineups for the events which were part of the Day Five program at the Olympic Games in London. The familiar powers of the sport were represented, from the United States to Australia, and China to Hungary to Japan. Those countries have some of the richest traditions, and have been medal factors for years.

Another look at the start list, however, reveals a good number of participants from nations which are not, shall we say, aquatic forces. There was an athlete from Cuba. There was one from the Bahamas. Also represented were Denmark and Belarus. The count further included Israel, Colombia, Morocco and Lithuania.

It would be one thing if it was the preliminary round which was being discussed. It's not. We're talking about the night session, when the semifinals and finals are conducted. That means athletes from non-swimming powers are succeeding at the highest level, and advancing on their merit. That development can only be described as a positive for the sport.

At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when countries could send three athletes to compete in each event, the United States men put together the greatest team showing in history. Led by John Naber and Brian Goodell, the Americans won 12 of the 13 events contested, dropping only the 200 breaststroke to Great Britain's David Wilkie. Further, the United States posted sweeps in four events, and had gold-silver showings in nine of the 11 individual disciplines.

That type of domination will never be seen again, in part because nations are now limited to only two athletes per event. More than that, however, is the fact that the sport does not lend itself to such one-sided strength any longer. Swimming has grown exponentially, so a guy from Suriname capturing an Olympic gold, as Anthony Nesty did in the 100 butterfly in 1988, is not as shocking as it once was.

While not every athlete from the aforementioned countries had a connection to another land, coaching in other nations has paid dividends for development around the world. Lithuania's Ruta Meilutyte, the Olympic champion in the 100 breaststroke, is mentored in Britain. Colombia's Omar Pinzon, a qualifier for the semifinals of the 200 backstroke, trained with Gregg Troy at the University. Israel's Gal Nevo, who reached the semifinals of the 200 individual medley, attended Georgia Tech. As for Bahamian Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace, she has benefited from the guidance of Auburn coach Brett Hawke, an Olympian during his competitive days for Australia.

A hot debate through the years, especially in the United States, concerns one country training athletes from another to beat its own. When it comes to college athletes, there is a debate over taking scholarship money from American youngsters. Then again, the sport is growing because the best tutelage is being provided. Both sides of the argument can be seen.

From the Olympic standpoint, it is great to see this growth. What a story it was at the Beijing Games when, on the final day of competition, Ous Mellouli prevailed in the 1500 freestyle to upend two-time defending champion Grant Hackett of Australia. Mellouli became a legend in his homeland, despite training in Southern California with the Trojan Swim Club, and maybe influenced a few young Tunisians to take up the sport.

As for Wednesday night, look at the tale of Hanser Garcia. From Cuba, where baseball is king, Garcia competed in the final of the 100 freestyle, considered the premier event on the docket. Surely his accomplishment will be appreciated by some at home who might take up the sport and find success, encouraging him/her to stash away the mitt.

There's also the most basic angle, a viewpoint birthed out of boredom and the desire to see something different: “Oh, look. I've never seen that country represented on the podium. I wonder what the National Anthem sounds like.” It's akin to the back-to-back years in which Butler University advanced to the NCAA Final Four, giving college basketball fans something other than an all-powerhouse final.

As swimming moves into the post-Michael Phelps years, it will be key to maintain global interest. No one can argue that Phelps' presence attracts viewership, and his impending retirement will remove a critical element of the equation. Fortunately, the public seems to be catching on to others, most notably Ryan Lochte.

From a worldwide perspective, the more countries we see represented at a high level of international competition, the more the sport will blossom in nations without an established tradition. Success is one hell of an addictive drug. So, root for some of those lesser-known names from lesser-known locales. It can only be a positive for the future. Greater parity isn't a bad thing.

Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn

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