By Jeff Commings
PHOENIX, Arizona, June 5. COMPETITIVE swimming has been around for hundreds of years, long before Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the 1896 Olympics. So how can Swimming World possibly pick the 10 best years in the sport? Combined with stories that have lasted generations and personalities that are known outside the sport, finding 10 great years in swimming was much easier than squeezing into a high-tech suit. And, it's only fitting that we begin there…
Never before had the general media covered swimming in a non-Olympic year as much as they did in 2009. FINA's blanket approval of the high-tech rubber swimsuits — and the 100-plus world records that followed — created a media frenzy.
The swimming competition at the 1976 Olympics was a watershed week for the sport. The American men won 12 of 13 events and took all three medals in four of the races. The East German women won 11 of 13 events, prompting whispers of doping that, despite physical evidence, could not be proven at the time. It was also the first year goggles were used in a major international competition.
Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and will stand as one of the greatest athletic achievements by a human being in history. Equally as significant that year was the introduction of non-textile material into swimsuits and Jessica Hardy's removal from the U.S. Olympic swim team after testing positive for clenbuterol, later proven to be due to a tainted supplement.
Mark Spitz's seven golds at the Munich Games is still regarded as a legendary accomplishment, especially given that only two other swimmers in history (Phelps and Matt Biondi) have dared to try to match it.
It's difficult to separate these two years when discussing the political strategies that evolved into multi-country boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. The 1980 boycott was fueled by the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviets retaliated in 1984. We can only wonder how the results pages would have read if both Olympics had full attendance.
Swimming World Magazine, under the guidance of Editor-in-Chief Phil Whitten, made the Stasi Files public, proving East German coaches and scientists systematically gave female athletes steroids for decades under the shadow of the Iron Curtain. That same year, the Chinese women blazed through the world championships, using swimmers later to be banned for life for drug use.
Angel Myers became the first American swimmer to be removed from the Olympic Team after testing positive for nandrolone. Myers maintained her innocence and returned to the sport after her 16-month suspension, winning three golds and three bronzes at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. At the Olympics that year, Janet Evans beat the East Germans and set a world record in the 400 freestyle (4:03.85) that would last 18 years, while Matt Biondi tried to match Mark Spitz's seven golds. Biondi would win five gold, a silver and a bronze.
Until 1973, the world only met once every four years to battle in the pool. FINA, the world's governing body for aquatic sports, decided to give athletes another worldwide event to keep interest in the sport alive. The first world championships in Yugoslavia was a huge success, resulting in a barrier-breaking time in the 400 freestyle by Rick DeMont to vindicate the gold medal he lost in 1972 for a positive drug test. It was also another dominating meet by the East German women.
Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and others are very well-known today, but no one has matched the superstar power of Johnny Weissmuller, who won three gold medals in the 1924 Olympics before he donned the loincloth as Tarzan.
The youngest of the four swimming strokes, butterfly, was officially born in 1952, when FINA finally relented to demands to separate it from breaststroke. Its Olympic debut came in 1956.
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