British trials run risk of leaving the best behind

James Parrack, British international and former Olympian, criticises the first-two-past-the-post system for this week's Olympic swimming trials
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When does a world record mean nothing, and the nectar of second place taste as sweet as victory? At the United States Olympic swimming trials. One trials, one chance: the first two to finish each event walk out as Olympians, the others just walk out. Everyone knows the rules. It's scrupulously fair. But is it right? Does it select the best team? And, as Tony Blair might well argue, "is it right for Britain?"

Last week, the United States held their Olympic trials, and, starting tomorrow, Britain will do the same in Sheffield. It will be the first time for many years where Britain has adopted a similar sudden-death policy. The policy works in the United States because of the depth of talent they have. They always have been and always will be one of the top swimming nations. The American trials is an exact replica of the Olympic timetable, and in every event, a number of the world's top 10 will race under intense pressure to place first or second. It effectively simulates the conditions those athletes will find at the Games. The slogan on No Fear T-shirts announcing second place as the "first loser" becomes redundant.

However, to adopt the policy here is to overestimate Britain's importance in world swimming. Here, we do not have great depth of talent, but rather a handful of realistic medal prospects, and only a few more with any chance of making the Olympic final. Furthermore, Olympic trials over here do not recreate the same pressure to be found in Atlanta. Our timetable of events is different and our outstanding swimmers will have a relatively easy path to victory. In our trials, if healthy, they should comfortably make the team, and probably will. More importantly, all of our potential Olympic team will coast through the heats and into the final, whereas at the Games, their best performance will often not guarantee a place even in a consolation final.

In a well-known pool, with familiar competition and everything to play for, if you finish in the top two (and under a fairly tough qualifying time) many swimmers will perform a lifetime best in the final. But take them to a strange pool, throw their daily routine into chaos and ask them to swim their lifetime best against unfamiliar rivals at 10 o'clock in the morning, and they will become an anonymous face in the crowd. The Olympic Games is the most impersonal and overwhelming competition imaginable, and it is no surprise to find that less than 20 per cent of swimmers' best times are done there.

Which is why, until now, Britain has preferred to pre-select its outstanding swimmers. Pre-selection ensures that Britain's few real medal hopes are protected from the damage the uncontrollable factors can do. We arrange the best nutritional and medical support network for our athletes, so it would seem pointless to then leave them at the mercy of the common cold, on the day of the trials.

To choose not to make pre-selections is to roll the dice and hope none of our potential medallists are ill this week. And this is the rub. Every four years, a national or world record-holder has failed to make the US team due to illness at their trials. In 1988, Pablo Morales, the world record holder in the 100m until last year, failed to make the US Olympic team for Seoul. In 1992 Carl Lewis, already the winner of seven gold medals and double defending Olympic champion, failed to qualify for the US team in the 100m. And last week, four more current or recent world record holders failed to make the US team in their events for Atlanta. But the wealth of American talent ensures that the new faces will make significant progress at the Games and will probably surpass the achievements of the vanquished heroes, beginning a dynasty of their own.

But Britain does not possess so much talent that it can afford to let outstanding performers be left at home. To maximise Britain's chance of having finalists, we need to have the best possible team out there. This requires pre-selection for the realistic medal chances, with the opportunity to plan their own training and competition timetable to the Games. We need a series of trials here and abroad, providing a selection "window" of two or three months, instead of the pseudo-excitement of the one chance, which we desperately hope will turn out to be a thrilling record-fest of national significance. To omit one outstanding member of a team is a luxury Britain can not afford.

James Parrack swam for Britain in the 1988 Olympics. He is in the British Olympic trials at Sheffield this week in the 100m breaststroke, on Thursday. In 1992 he finished third in the trials behind Adrian Moorhouse and Nick Gillingham, who both qualified for Barcelona and reached the Olympic final. Parrack is 29.