Swimming: British swimmers urged to find hunger for success that was not on London menu

World short course championships to begin in Istanbul
  • @RobinScottEllio

It would seem appropriate that the 19 swimmers representing Britain at the world short course championships that begin in Istanbul on Wednesday will be competing in a temporary pool, constructed for the five-day meet within the Sinan Erdem Dome on the European shore of the city. Four months on from the disappointments of the London Games, this is a sport in a state of flux – or a “mess” as Rebecca Adlington chose to put it – and one that is on the verge of paying the price for failing to deliver at its greatest moment.

Back in London, the Aquatics Centre, where Britain won just three Olympic medals, is a building site as it undergoes transformation for post-Games life. It has a clearly-planned future, unlike its lofty next-door neighbour, the Olympic Stadium, and most certainly unlike the home team that suffered a collective failure in its warm waters this summer

In some ways what happens in Istanbul over the next five days is an athletic sideshow to what is going on back home. Last week British Swimming released the findings of the report it commissioned into the Olympics, reviewing planning and performance. The governing body currently find themselves without either a performance director or a head coach – David McNulty, the man behind Michael Jamieson, the sole success story in London, is deputising in Turkey. They do have a chief executive though and, despite pressure to stand down for his part in the Olympic failure, David Sparkes is going nowhere.

Sparkes oversaw the spending of the £25m funding his sport were handed for London, only cycling and rowing, who mustered 12 golds and 21 medals between them, received significantly more for the last Olympic cycle. Next week UK Sport will reveal who gets what towards Rio. Funding is determined by whether a sport met its Olympic targets and how much potential there is to win medals in 2016. Swimming fell short; Jamieson’s silver and Adlington’s brace of bronzes did not add up to the five to seven medals required. What may save them from significant cuts is the number of young swimmers who are regarded as prospects for Rio (just as, incidentally, a number of those who swam in London were once held up).

The report, overseen by Craig Hunter, chef de mission for Britain’s Paralympic team and a member of British Swimming’s board, broadly suggested there is not much wrong with a system that is based upon five intensive training centres around the country. It is, so the report said, more a matter of fine tuning than a full refit. Michael Scott, the performance director, resigned. The Australian could not meet the report’s recommendation that he spend more time in this country. Sparkes had given Scott a new four-year deal shortly before the Games, an odd sense of timing, and agreed he could split his time between here and home.

The core change has seen trials moved from March to June so they are closer to the major championships – next year it is the world’s in Barcelona – and the swimmers are being encouraged to compete more often. “It told us nothing we didn’t know already,” was Adlington’s take. 

It is Dennis Pursley, the well-respected American who was head coach, who has produced the most telling comment. Pursley left after the Games – as he had always planned to do – but blamed himself for failing to instil “fire in the bellies” of the Olympic team. Unlike many of their Team GB counterparts, the swimmers, with the notable exception of Jamieson, who was denied gold on the touch and by a world record, failed to produce once in a lifetime performances for a once in a lifetime occasion.

There is an accusation of too much comfort in the system, a willingness to find consolation in reaching a final – as British swimmers did in record numbers in London – rather than endorse the win-or-bust mentality which permeates rowing and cycling. Any reduction in funding will make life tougher, and some suggest harden up those who live in the system.

None of which is to stay there is not cause for some optimism, albeit more heavily guarded than the crown jewels. Jamieson, who as a Celtic supporter has certainly had a 2012 to remember, will contend for a first long course world title next summer and has good medal chances this week. As do Hannah Miley, who set a European record to win the continental short course 400m medley title last month, Lizzie Simmonds, one of the better performers in London, and Francesca Halsall.

Miley’s medley events will attract the most interest of the championships, along with Ryan Lochte’s bid for another swathe of medals, as she and the Hungarian Katinka Hosszu seek to check the advance of Ye Shiwen. This will be the 16-year-old’s first major swim since she startled her competitors with a stunning last length of the 400m medley – completing the final 50m quicker than Lochte did to win men’s gold – to take a surprise victory in London. Her success was openly questioned – and put down to doping in many quarters, an accusation she and the Chinese team have vigorously denied.


New Brits on the blocks: three to watch in Istanbul

Craig Benson

Scotland has history when it comes to breaststroke and the 18-year-old world junior champion has the potential to add to it. Swam promisingly as part of the relay team in London

Sophie Allen

The 20-year-old had a disastrous Olympics, finishing three seconds outside her personal best in the 200m IM, but two golds and five medals in the recent World Cup series suggest better times lie ahead

Matt Johnson

The 17-year-old freestyle, fly and medley swimmer makes his senior debut as a double European junior champion. Just returned from a training camp in Rio for Britain’s best young swimmers