By Craig Lord
LONDON, December 23. SWIMMING will have its own version of the Ryder Cup by 2006 if talks between USA Swimming (USS) and the Ligue Europeenne de Natation (LEN) succeed in forming what would be the first arena in which the continent's best swimmers would compete under a united banner.
The new event is likely to mark a departure from the standard competition format in favor of knockouts and head-to-head clashes that would pitch the likes of Michael Phelps, the Tiger Woods of swimming with six Olympic gold medals to his credit, against Pieter van den Hoogenband, the Dutchman who beat him over 200 meters freestyle in Athens. It is also likely to see swimmers paid six-figure sums to compete.
Peter Daland, a veteran US coach working on behalf of USA Swimming who held meetings with the League at the European Short Course Championships, which ended in Vienna earlier this month, said: "LEN is very enthusiatic for this to happen and so is the US, so that's half the battle won. I am not a fan of paying swimmers to race, and it may be that prize money is the way we go, but whichever way we do it, money for swimmers is essential to ensuring the success of a USA v Europe showdown."
Of the tentative formats being discussed, the frontrunner is for the event to be staged over two to three days once every four years and attach a points system to the Olympic program. On the basis of awarding five for a win, three for second place and one point for the best loser (third in the knockout round), results at the Olympic Games in Athens would have seen Europe take the crown by 117 points to 102, with both sides winning 12 gold medals each in individual events.
Two things could alter that picture dramatically: the new competition may include four swimmers from each side, as opposed to the restriction of two per nation at the Olympic Games and world championships, while points for relays may be awarded on a winner takes all basis of seven to the victor and nothing to the loser.
While the European team could be selected by LEN at the European championships in Budapest in the summer of 2006 and therefore involve swimmers who have been exposed to international competition, the US squad could include swimmers ranked among the top five in the world but who have been confined to racing only in domestic waters because two other Americans ahead of them have kept them off national teams. A vehicle through which the US can provide international experience to four swimmers per event at the highest level is seen by Americans as critical to its tireless efforts to retain its competitive edge over the rest of the world.
"This could be the most exciting thing to happen in swimming for many years," said Daland. "We are trying to find a format that gets us away from the standard championship program and sets up the most thrilling of battles in some of our great cities. America and Australia have a similar event but we're dealing with a country with a small population, albeit one that has a fantastic swim team. A competition with Europe would attract huge interest."
Just where the funds would come from to stage the new competition remains to be seen. Daland said: "There's work to be done. I have to go back to US Swimming with Europe's encouraging response and then we'll get together again to see how we can get this off the ground."
The first sticking point is the likely date on a cluttered competition calendar. While 2006 would suite the US, Europe would prefer to hold the inaugural event in 2007, when there is a gap in the European summer courtesy of the fact that the world championships will be held in the Australian summer that year.
For Britain, 2006 includes the Commonwealth Games as well as European championships, while the US has scheduled a two-way battle with Australia in 2007. A possible compromise would be for Europe to join the US v Australia event, though Americans have indicated that they would wish to meet Europe alone.