Ariarne Titmus and Other Australians Skipping World Championships Would Hurt Swimming

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ariarne Titmus (AUS) celebrates after finishing ahead of Katie Ledecky (USA) to win the women's 400m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Ariarne Titmus -- Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports

Ariarne Titmus and Other Australians Skipping World Championships Would Hurt Swimming

In July, Ariarne Titmus came out on top of perhaps the most anticipated swimming races of the Tokyo Olympics when she out-dueled Katie Ledecky for gold in the women’s 400 freestyle, swimming the second-fastest time in history in the process. She doubled down on golds two days later when she topped the podium in the 200 free.

But when the world’s best gather again at this spring’s World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, Titmus may not be in attendance. And plenty of other top Australian swimmers, including double backstroke gold medalist Kaylee McKeown and sprint stars Kyle Chalmers and Cate Campbell, may also skip Worlds. The purpose would be to focus on the Commonwealth Games, scheduled for two months later in Birmingham, England.

Say what? Most of the best swimmers from the world’s second-best swimming nation would sit out the biggest meet of the year, one of precious few opportunities for the best swimmers in the world to face off, to prioritize a regional competition?

To draw a comparison to the ongoing NFL playoffs in the United States, imagine if one division (four of the 32 teams in the league) decided to pass on this year’s playoffs and a chance at the Super Bowl title because they wanted to focus on a smaller, regional tournament. That would mean the absence of the division-champion Kansas City Chiefs, who have played in the last two Super Bowls (with one win), and also the surprising wild-card Las Vegas Raiders.

In international sport, this is akin to a top tennis player voluntarily skipping Wimbledon for any reason other than injury. Occasionally a top player might skip one of the other Grand Slam tournaments but never Wimbledon, the most prestigious of all tennis tournaments in the world.

However, there is an asterisk. The World Championships are taking place in late May, not the usual late July/early August slot that FINA’s signature meet has occupied on six straight occasions and all but one time in the 21st century. This is Wimbledon played in April instead of July or the Super Bowl being bumped up to the weekend after Thanksgiving — neither of which would ever happen.

OK, so why are the World Championships happening two months early? Because the postponement of the Olympics due to the COVID-19 pandemic threw off the entire international calendar. The middle year of the Olympic cycle, which would normally be 2022, typically features a summer off from a full global championship, and FINA could have chosen to hold the Fukuoka Worlds either in late 2021 after the Olympics or simply cancelled the event and waited until 2023 for the next global showcase.

kaylee mckeown, world record

Backstroke Olympic champion Kaylee McKeown may also miss this year’s World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

But the sport’s governing body picked May 2022, in advance of a busy summer consisting of the European Championships, Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. The Pan Pacific Championships, a four-day meet featuring the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan, were the only meet to be called off completely. All other organizers stuck to their plans to hold their meets under the new, condensed timeframe.

Given the glut of competitions, it wouldn’t be surprising if swimmers from other countries besides Australia chose to prioritize a regional meet over Worlds. Basically all top swimmers except those in the United States and Latin America have a post-Worlds summer competition.

So the World Championships — again, supposedly the most prestigious meet on the calendar — could be a watered-down affair. With many of the world’s best missing, world titles will be less prestigious and less earned, just like the titles won at the sparsely-attended Short Course World Championships last month in Abu Dhabi.

What’s the solution? Have an every-year major championship, the one meet that every athlete in the world puts all their focus on. This could be the World Championships most years or the Olympics in applicable years. Of course, for swimming to really move beyond its status as an every-four-years sport, world titles need to carry significant weight. They should not be simply a stepping-stone to the next Olympics.

If the 2022 Worlds are diminished, the only chance before the Paris Olympics for the world’s best to meet will be at the 2023 World Championships in Doha, Qatar, and that meet has been scheduled for late November. Yes, November — just eight months before Paris. When most athletes would normally be in heavy training for their final Olympic preparations. What?

As it is, many view the year-before-Olympics version of Worlds as just a tune-up for the Games. That has been the logic for USA Swimming in selecting its team one year in advance during each of the last five Olympic cycles, and when the Americans had disappointing performances at both the 2015 Worlds in Kazan and the 2019 Worlds in Gwangju, the common refrain was that the swimmers were preparing to be better the following year.

The implication? That world titles didn’t really mean all that much in the grand scheme of the sport. If top Australians are skipping a World Championships, ditto.

Guess what? If the powers-that-be in swimming want the sport to extend the sport’s reach in the non-Olympic years, it needs to be less Olympic-centric, and that means having at least one major international meet in long course each year where the results truly matter. Instead, you’re looking at one half-attended World Championships and another where all swimmers have one eye on Paris as the only signature events over a three-year span.

Yes, we could go three years without seeing all of the world’s best swimmers together at one meet that they are all prioritizing. Quite simply, that would be an awful outcome for the sport.

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8 months ago

Isn’t this a moot point now?

8 months ago

Sounds like the athletes are making decisions for themselves and what they think is best for them.

8 months ago

Perhaps they knew what was coming

8 months ago

What’s the point of training at a championship level if you’re not going to compete at championships? That is, if any championships are ever held again.

8 months ago

Missing the point here mate – and unless you are an Australian (or any Commonwealth country rep) then you may not understand ’our’ perspective for swimmers:
1. Olympics
2. Commonwealth
3. Worlds

USA gave up the right to rep in commonwealth, so don’t make stuff up when you don’t understand our psyche, mate.

8 months ago
Reply to  Anonymous

I agree with your point as a Brit now living in Australia, but I did laugh at you choice of words when you wrote “USA gave up the right to rep”. I take it you are referring to the United States participation in the American Revolutionary War From 19 Apr 1775 – 3 Sept 1783?

7 months ago
Reply to  Anonymous

Speaking as a member of a commonwealth country, I’d still rather be world champion than commonwealth champion.

8 months ago

Commonwealth games have the right to stick to their schedule especially considering FINA keeps awarding sc worlds and lc worlds held every six months just to keep the tv and sponsorship dollars coming in

It’s not commonwealth games fault .. and Comm games racing competition is tough even without usa in it

8 months ago

The Commonwealth games are not a ‘regional’ competition… they are a global competition of commonwealth nations. In Australia they are regarded as second only in importance to the Olympic games. They are regarded by Australians as more important than the world championships. This article was obviously written by an American … pretty much the only English speaking nation not in the Commonwealth.