Time to Go Back to Three Olympic Spots Per Team?

Column by John Lohn

ZIHUATENEJO, Mexico. May 17. SOME might read this column and brand me a homer, only making the point because it seems to best serve the United States. That's fine. I've taken my criticism in the past, as it comes with the territory of this occupation. More will come in the future. That's for sure. But, as I write this piece, I honestly believe the rule change about to be suggested is good for the sport of swimming, and not just for my native country.

At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the United States men were so dominant in the pool that they won 12 of the 13 events contested. More impressive, the American men swept the medals in four events. Yes, at the time, each nation was able to send three athletes to the starting block in each event. And, as a result, the possibility existed for single-nation dominance of a particular discipline.

Due to the overwhelming showing of Red, White and Blue on the medals stand, the sport underwent a change in which each country was limited to two athletes per event. We'll show the Americans. Who do they think they are producing one-two-three performances? Well, they're the best in the world, that's who.

At the time of the 1976 Games, there is no arguing that the global depth in swimming paled in comparison to what we know today. Only a handful of countries were churning out medalists, unlike the current state of the sport, in which Zimbabwe and Tunisia – just to name a pair of nations – have celebrated Olympic triumphs by Kirsty Coventry and Ous Mellouli. Simply put, the sport has grown significantly, and will continue to grow in the years to come. That's hardly an out-on-a-limb statement. It's the truth.

So, it seems time for the International Olympic Committee and FINA to revert to the bylaws that once stood: Three competitors to an event. This is where the American bias arguments will start, but it has more to do with having the best athletes in an event than anything else. If the third-best swimmer in a particular event happens to be from the same country as the top two, doesn't the disallowance of the third swimmer from competition water down the field? And, aren't the Olympics supposed to be the most revered athletic competition in the world? It makes sense to have the best fields possible.

During the 100 backstroke at the Charlotte UltraSwim over the weekend, the men's 100 backstroke brought together a field that was the best of the meet. There was two-time defending Olympic champ Aaron Peirsol, Mr. Olympia Michael Phelps, Beijing silver medalist in the 100 back Matt Grevers and multiple Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte. Oh, and the event was won by Nick Thoman, who continues to make impressions in the event.

The times from the weekend, ultimately, meant nothing. The athletes are at varied stages of their preparation for the big meets of the summer. Nonetheless, that collection of talent is proof that one nation can have the top three swimmers in an event, maybe more. Heck, we're not even including Randall Bal, another backstroke standout with international pedigree.

By the time the U.S. Nationals and Pan Pacific Championships come to a close, would it be surprising if the United States had the top three 100 backstrokers in the world? Not really. Meanwhile, is it possible that Australia could boast the top three men or women in an event at some point in the future? Absolutely. Could another nation pull the feat? Yep.

Track and field allows three athletes per nation in an event. Why should swimming be any different?

We're no longer in an era where Olympic medals are captured by just a few countries. The range of medal winners is as high as ever. It's for this reason that it's time to adjust the two-per-country rule and make it three entrants per nation for the Olympic Games and World Championships. It won't be easy for a country to pull off a sweep, but the chance should be there. It will keep each event loaded to the max, and the appreciation level if the feat is pulled off would be huge.