Opportunities Abound With New Olympic Events Coming for Tokyo 2020

Photo Courtesy: Swimming World

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Morning Splash by David Rieder.

When the International Olympic Committee officially announced the 15 new Olympic events across all sports that will debut at the Tokyo 2020 Games, IOC President Thomas Bach emphasized that he hoped to make the Olympics “more youthful, more urban and will include more women.”

For the “youthful” and “urban” elements, look to the 3×3 basketball tournaments and the additions of surfing, climbing and skateboarding, but the increased opportunities for women will be evident in swimming, where for the first time ever, women and men will contest the exact same program of events.

The 1500 free had been included a every Olympic Games for men since 1904, but for women, the Olympic didn’t even offer an event longer than 400 meters until the 800 was introduced in 1968. But in 2020, for the first time, women will contest the 1500 free.

Within the sport, the reaction to the new events has been predominantly positive.

“I have preached almost every telecast that they show a women’s 1500 how it’s ridiculous that they don’t have a 1500 for women in the Olympics. It’s almost saying to women you aren’t capable of swimming a 1500 like the men—yet they run the marathon for women. It’s never made sense to me.” – NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines on Off Deck.

“I am very happy that there is now equity in the distance events. Adding the women’s 1500 is long overdue.” – 2016 U.S. men’s Olympic head coach Bob Bowman

“I just say it’s about time we had the women’s 1500. And not just for Katie Ledecky’s sake—for Janet Evans and the others before her.” – 2016 U.S. women’s Olympic head coach David Marsh

Evans held the world record in the 1500 free for almost two decades, but she never competed in the event at the Olympic Games. Ledecky, four years after becoming only the second woman to sweep the gold medals in the 200, 400 and 800 free, will have that opportunity.

Back in April, when Ledecky was asked whether she would like to see the 1500 added to the Olympic program, she answered yes, but with a caveat.

“I obviously prefer them to add the 1500, but I don’t think the 800 should be eliminated,” she said. “I think there’s such a great history of the 800 free. There’ve been so many people that have swum the 800 free at the Olympics, and they deserve the recognition going forward.”

Ledecky assumed that the primary decision-makers wouldn’t listen to her suggestions, but the 20-year-old who already has won five Olympic gold medals got exactly what she wished for.

Naturally, to ensure a balanced program, the addition of women’s event meant a new one for the men—the 800 free.

“If you’re going to have the 1500 and 800 for women, then certainly you should have the 1500 and 800 for men, too,” Gaines said. “I know there are a lot of distance swimmers out there saying ‘Hallelujah,’ and they deserve it. They work harder than anybody else out there.”

In adding extra distance races, the IOC provided extra medal chances for swimmers who previously had fewer chances than sprinters, and the decision awarded Olympic potential for some men for whom the 400 is too short and 1500 too long and women for whom the 800 is too short.

Non-swimmers might find it difficult to believe, but that type of specialization exists at the sport’s upper levels. Just ask Michael Klueh, who finished third in the 400 free—less than a half-second short of making the Olympic team—and eighth in the 200 free at the 2012 Trials.

“Once upon a time, this would have been really exciting for my career,” Klueh said. “I think it says a lot about how popular our sport has become with audiences at home, and it’s really cool swimming will be able showcase even more events.”

Unlike the distance additions, the mixed 400 medley relay will not be providing any additional career opportunities, just another chance for medals for those who specialize in the 100-meter stroke events.

But for fans of strategy, this relay might just be the most exciting of the Olympic Games

“You can make mistakes on strategy on other relays and get away with it,” Gaines said. “You can’t get away with it here.”

Two men and two women will compete for each country, and coaches must decide who fits best in what slot. It’s more than just putting the four fastest swimmers together and saying, ‘Go,’ like a standard relay. Often times, the men swim first so the team doesn’t have to swim from behind in choppy waters, but it’s not always so straightforward, especially in a medley relay.

Katie Meili’s first reaction was, ‘That’s going to be so fun!’ Unfortunately for a female breaststroker, you’re thinking my chances of making the medley because I’m on the breaststroke leg isn’t so good,” Marsh said.

But with British breaststroker Adam Peaty holding almost a two-second advantage over any American male breaststroker on that leg, perhaps a female would be a prudent choice on that leg.

“If Britain has a 57 breaststroker and (the U.S.) has a 59 breaststroker and Lilly (King), Katie or Molly (Hannis) gets down to 1:04—which I think is very possible—I think you might have to pick a female breaststroker and put them on the relay,” Marsh said.

Get ready for strategy debates and intense scrutiny of coaching decisions, even as soon as this summer at the World Championships. The mixed medley relay actually debuted at FINA’s signature event in 2015, but several countries didn’t send out full-strength squads, and Australia did not even enter a quartet.

Safe to say that will change next month in Budapest.

With the addition of the two distance events plus the mixed medley relay, that means there will be 35 sets of medals awarded in the pool in 2020—but still no stroke 50s.

Plenty of 50-meter specialists will be upset with the decision, while last year’s U.S. Olympic head coaches disagreed on whether they would have liked to see the 50s added: Bowman applauded the decision to pass, while Marsh regretted it, believing that Olympic 50-meter races could help extend careers. Gaines had mixed emotions.

“I’ve never been real crazy about the 50s. Maybe I’m old-school a little bit. I’m not saying there’s not a skill set, and the swimmers train hard, but I think a true test of strength and endurance and skill really come in the 100s and up,” Gaines said. “But the 50s a give athletes a longer shelf life. They can move down to the 50s and stay in the sport longer—which I love.”

Still even without the 50s, events were added, equality was achieved for women and men, and new medal opportunities were added. All good for the sport… right?

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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5 years ago

In a discussion of adding the women’s 1500 free for the first time, why were current quotes printed from three men and zero women?

5 years ago
Reply to  Swimminist

The point of having these different races is to differentiate between swimmers that have different skill sets. It’ll be interesting to compare the results in the 800 and 1500 free. If there are actual differences, then this will be a success. But if essentially the same top 8 finish in similar positions in both events, then it’ll be boring, and they’ll have to remove the 800.