Winners and Losers of the Newly Added Budapest World Championships

duna_arena_jun17-fina, fina world championships

Winners and Losers of the Newly-Added Budapest World Championships

The start of 2022 has been a quiet period for elite swimming action outside of the NCAA season in the United States and a few small meets in Europe, but the new year has seen the sport’s international calendar become topsy turvy. In late January, rumors emerged that the World Championships scheduled for Fukuoka, Japan, in late May would be pushed back to 2023. FINA made the news official on February 1, but six days later, the governing body added a new Worlds for 2022, scheduled for Budapest in late June and early July.

You get all that? OK, now breathe in, breathe out and hope for no more COVID-related schedule changes.

The swimming world now knows what competition the biggest meet in the world this year will be. But the new Budapest meet will be welcomed differently around world, particularly among those countries whose swimmers were perfectly content to focus on a regional meet for the upcoming long course season.

Winners

The United States wins with this news, no question. During the interim period when it appeared there would be no World Championships, the Americans were the only major swimming nation without a prime competition as they were not included in the European Championships, Commonwealth Games or Asian Games. The Pan Pacific Championships had already been canceled for this year, but the other three main countries at that meet (Australia, Canada and Japan) all had other landing spots.

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Caeleb Dressel in 2017 before he won seven gold medals at the World Championships in Budapest — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Now, the Americans know they will be focusing on a World Championships this year, just like most post-Olympic years. They will return to the Duna Arena, site of an utterly dominant performance in 2017. At that meet, Caeleb Dressel matched the all-time World Championships record with seven gold medals, Katie Ledecky swept the three longest women’s freestyle events for the third straight Worlds and the team captured a whopping 38 total medals.

U.S. swimmers will now be able to proceed with a fairly normal schedule for 2022. A Trials meet is still on the schedule for April, and the major meet would be about a month earlier than normal. Surely, many top Americans will be pleased to have the month of July available with the year’s major long course meet out of the way.

Also benefitting from the news will be Tunisian Olympic gold medalist Ahmed Hafnaoui and Brazilian bronze medalists Bruno Fratus and Fernando Scheffer, who were among those left out in the shuffle of major meets this year.

The other big winner? Fans of swimming. Simply, the World Championships are the best meet swimming has to offer, a meet that is the endgame for everyone. It’s not at the level of the Olympic Games, but world titles (usually) have meaning. The results matter. If the Olympics are swimming’s Wimbledon, Worlds are the Australian Open or the French Open, still a really big deal.

Losers

Swimmers from Australia, Great Britain, China, Canada, Russia, Japan and elsewhere were surely content with their regional meets and a slightly more laid-back summer of competition after an extra-long buildup toward a postponed Olympic Games only made more stressful by the COVID-19 pandemic. They could benefit from a slight reset regarding global competition while still focusing on meaningful competitions later in the year.

Now, plans are up in the air again. The Commonwealth Games and European Championships remain on the schedule for about one month after Worlds, with the Asian Games set to follow in September. Will most of these swimmers try to focus on both Worlds and the ensuing regional championships? Will some of them skip Worlds altogether? How might trying to focus on two international meets back-to-back affect their performances?

In a response to the news from FINA, British Swimming said that it would be “assessing the performance, logistical and financial implications of this announcement.” The statement went on to say, “we are also very mindful of the expectation and welfare challenges this now places on our athlete and staffing cohorts. We will be working with them to determine the best way forwards through this eye-opening sequence of top-level competition opportunities, not only between June and August of this season, but all the way through to 2025.”

Suffice to say, that’s one organization that isn’t thrilled about the latest news.

TITMUS

Ariarne Titmus was considering skipping the World Championships in Fukuoka — Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

On the contrary, perhaps Australian swimmers would be more likely to show up at a June-July Worlds in Europe than a meet one month earlier in Asia. Many Australians had considered skipping the Fukuoka Worlds, and some had discussed plans of racing in Europe in June for the Mare Nostrum series, with its final stop in Monaco doubling as one of the country’s qualifying meets for the Commonwealth Games. That Monaco meet is scheduled for June 18-19, one week before the swimming competition at World Championships would likely begin.

But who suffers the most from this decision? That would be the ISL, which scheduled its early-season swing through North America for the four weekends in June and the first weekend in July. The final two of those meets would overlap exactly with the World Championships — and Worlds would undoubtedly be a higher priority for most top swimmers.

The ISL has already struggled with athlete buy-in and attendance, particularly during the 2021 season, so it has announced plans to have “Pro” and “Semi-Pro” athletes this year to go along with an ambitious 24-match schedule. Surely, many athletes would not be willing to commit to “Pro” status if it put their preparation or even their availability for the World Championships into question. And beginning a season with large swaths of top athletes missing would be devastating for the legitimacy of the ISL.

The Verdict

The argument here is that having a World Championships, a central meet for the entire swimming community, is a positive, and swimming deserves a signature event every year. However, the meet taking place one month later than previously scheduled and creating conflicts with numerous other international competitions places athletes in a tough spot.

Hopefully for the swimming community, this is a one-time situation, an after-effect of the COVID-related postponement of the Olympic Games, and it will not happen again. Maybe after the 2024 Olympics in Paris, swimming will be able to establish a more regular international calendar that doesn’t force athletes into making tough decisions about their focus meets. Of course, that would take planning and coordination among major swimming governing bodies (yes, including the ISL) that simply does not exist yet.

And we also must consider that adding another meet called the “World Championships” diminishes the entire concept. FINA has never held more than two editions of the Worlds between Olympics, and now, in the shortest-ever gap between Summer Games, there are plans to hold three: Budapest in 2022, Fukuoka in 2023 and Doha in January 2024. The last of those editions would take place just six months before the Paris Olympics — and another Worlds, in Kazan, Russia, would follow in 2025.

FINA did note in its Monday morning announcement that it “continues to consult with athletes and stakeholders on the schedule for the FINA World Championships in Doha, Qatar, and more information will follow as soon as possible.” Hopefully, that means punting on the foolhardy plan to hold a World Championships mere months after the previous edition and just before the Olympics.

In the meantime, the circumstances surrounding the newly-announced Budapest Worlds are far from ideal, but maybe by June, the COVID-19 pandemic will have subsided and swimmers will have the opportunity to fulfill FINA’s promise of a World Championships that will be “extraordinary.”