Britain's medal hopes resting on magnificent six

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The Independent Online

In Ponds Forge last week, it was not about the Olympic rings but about the Olympic ring. The five rings, representing the five continents linked together in sporting excellence, are nothing compared with the lump of gold, moulded into the Olympic emblem, that is worn on the fingers of the members of the most exclusive sporting club in the world - those who have participated in the Olympic Games.

In Ponds Forge last week, it was not about the Olympic rings but about the Olympic ring. The five rings, representing the five continents linked together in sporting excellence, are nothing compared with the lump of gold, moulded into the Olympic emblem, that is worn on the fingers of the members of the most exclusive sporting club in the world - those who have participated in the Olympic Games.

"Everybody wants that Olympic ring," pronounced Helen Don-Duncan after her British record victory in the final of the 200 metres backstroke. It was her first reaction to a lifelong ambition to swim backstroke in the Olympic Games. And while last week's trials were about making those dreams come true for 22 of the 41-strong team who are likely to be selected to their first Games when the British Olympic Association announces the team today, it was also the final competition for our medal hopefuls to record world-ranked times.

Deryk Snelling, the national performance director, made the point after the trials that the medal winners in Sydney will come from the top seven ranked swimmers going into the Games. And for Britain, that means six swimmers and two teams: Paul Palmer in the 400m freestyle, Steve Parry in the 200m butterfly, Don-Duncan in the 200m backstroke, James Hickman in the 100m butterfly, Mark Foster and Alison Sheppard in the 50m freestyle and the men's and women's 4x200m freestyle relay teams.

However, before we get caught up in Olympic fever, it is important to point out the difference between a medal hope and a medal prospect. England's football team hoped to win Euro 2000. Physically possible, but too many others were better.

For some of our hopefuls, simply reaching an Olympic final would be a great personal triumph. The prospects are where the medals could be won. With probably only four prospects, we could as easily win no medals as win four. The only time the Olympic swimming team failed to win a medal was in Berlin in 1936. But to judge this team on its medal count would be a mistake.

In Atlanta four years ago, we had just seven final appearances out of 36 events. To improve on this number would provide a more accurate yardstick of the impact that Lottery funding for regional training centres is beginning to make. With more finalists this year than before, the chances of having medal prospects in four years' time will have improved significantly. And 2004 is the earliest date to make a judgement on the benefit to British sport of the National Lottery.

In all, 41 swimmers have been proposed for selection to the BOA. It is a measure of success that so many have taken up the challenge and surpassed the toughest qualifying standards that the Amateur Swimming Association has ever imposed on its Olympic athletes. The weakness of the policy was the easier times proposed for relay teams. Some 17 swimmers will be there just to make up the relay squads, and it is possible that some of this number will not even get a swim once they are there.

While Palmer, Parry and Hickman swam fast throughout the heats, semi-finals and finals, many others here missed the opportunity to practise for the Olympics by swimming close to their best times throughout all three rounds, which is what they will need to do in Sydney.

"The problem is that the ones who have never been there before will be underestimating just how tough the competition is going to be," says Britain's last Olympic swimming champion, Adrian Moorhouse. "Some kid from Guatemala is going to give them a hell of a shock."

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