Too Many Relays at Short Course Worlds Cheapens Value of Medals

SWE - Sweden, HANSSON Louise SWE, HANSSON Sophie SWE, SJOSTROM Sarah SWE, celebrating ER Gold Medal 4x100m Medley Relay Women Final Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates 21/12/2021 Etihad Arena-european-championships- FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto
Sweden's Sophie Hansson, Sarah Sjostrom and Louise Hansson celebrate gold in the 400 medley relay at the Short Course World Championships -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Too Many Relays at Short Course Worlds Cheapens Value of Medals

Relays are major championships are awesome. National pride and legacies are at stake, and swimmers put all their efforts into not letting down their country and their team. Relays provide the most indelible memories from Olympics and World Championships. Consider swimmers like Jason Lezak, Nathan Adrian or Cate Campbell, great sprinters on their own but best known for their heroic efforts when relay medals are on the line.

Everyone loves relays — except when a meet offers so many permutations that you forget you have not already seen this one.

The Olympics had featured six relays through 2016, and the Tokyo Games included seven after the addition of the mixed 400 medley relay. The Short Course World Championships had 12 relays. Yes, 12. Why would a swim meet need nearly that many team events, and why are half of those relays 200 meters in distance when such events did not exist a decade ago?

Of course, it’s super fun to watch some of the world’s best swimmers compete in the women’s, men’s and mixed 200-meter freestyle and medley relays. But these relays feel contrived, invented simply to exist rather than for any purpose that actually makes the sport better. While the 400 free, 800 free and 400 medley relays have an extensive history in the sport, the 200-meter relays were just added to the World Championships lineup in 2014, and world records have only been kept since then.

These sprint relays make sense in a team event like the NCAA Championships or the ISL, where the ultimate goal is a team championship. At a World Championships, all they do is cheapen the value of a medal.

USA - United States of America, WEITZEIL Abbey USA, CURZAN Claire USA, BERKOFF Katharine USA, DOUGLASS Kate USA, Gold Medal 4x50m Freestyle Women Final Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates 21/12/2021 Etihad Arena FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Americans Abbey Weitzeil, Katharine Berkoff, Claire Curzan and Kate Douglass all won at least five medals at Short Course Worlds — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

And the mixed-gender relays? What is the point of those? Sure, the medley provides for some interesting strategy decisions, but neither mixed relay tests any unique skill, so they don’t really make sense to have at a World Championships. All they provide is an extra medal chance for countries strong in both women and men’s events.

The mixed 400 medley relay was added to the Olympics with the goal of “gender equity,” but swimming would have achieved that by stopping the new event additions with the women’s 1500 free and men’s 800 free.

More individual events make sense for a World Championships or even the Olympics. The 50 breaststroke is very different from the 200 breaststroke, and individuals with unique skillsets deserve the opportunity to show those off. Having several different measures of determining which group of individuals is best at the 50 freestyle makes a lot less sense.

Consider some of the swimmers who had huge success at this week’s Short Course World Championships in Abu Dhabi. It was the best meet of Louise Hansson’s international career as she won gold in the 100 backstroke, silver in the 100 butterfly and bronze in the 50 backstroke. Those individual results are a lot more meaningful than the seven total medals she won (including three gold) since four of those medals were on relays.

Ditto Nic Fink, who won two golds and a bronze in men’s breaststroke. He, too, won six total medals, but three individual honors is the much more significant accomplishment.

Typically, winning six, seven or eight medals at a major international competition feels like a momentous accomplishment because it’s rare. Not so much in Abu Dhabi, where a dozen swimmers won either six or seven medals. Six women reached that number (Hansson, Sarah Sjostrom, Ranomi Kromiwidjojo, Abbey Weitzeil, Claire Curzan and Katharine Berkoff) and six men (Fink, Kliment Kolesnikov, Shaine Casas, Ryan Held, Andrei Minakov and Aleksandr Shchegolev). One-third of that group won all but one of their medals on relays.

It’s simply not possible for that many athletes to earn such large medal hauls at any other world-level championship meet. Accomplishments at Short Course Worlds mean less than at the long course edition of the World Championships because many of the world’s top swimmers typically skip the meet for one reason or another, but all of these relay opportunities that don’t exist at other meets cheapens the value of the medals.

FINK Nic USA celebrating Gold Medal 50m Breaststroke Men Final Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates 21/12/2021 Etihad Arena FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Nic Fink won three individual and three relay medals in Abu Dhabi — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Of course, swimmers deserved to be recognized for winning multiple individual medals or for winning their first individual medal at a major international competition, but that can get lost in the shuffle when the relay medal-winners can win so many.

Trying to win relay medals for your country is awesome, but those medals have a lot more value when female and males only compete in three each for the entire meet. At Short Course Worlds, if you had an off performance in one 200-meter relay, don’t fret: there’s another relay coming up tomorrow and another the day after that.

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Swim Fan
Swim Fan
2 years ago

This article degrades accomplishments of swimmers, who worked hard, traveled far and earned the recognition. Surely you can find positives in this meet besides an article like this.

2 years ago

You’ve certainly got a point, but why not give out more medals? Life is short and we should all gather our rosebuds while we may.

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