Trials no substitute for the real thing

The words once uttered by Winston Churchill sum up the task in front of Britain's swimmers this week. "Sometimes it's not enough to do your best," he pronounced solemnly to the troops. "Sometimes you have to do what's required."

The words once uttered by Winston Churchill sum up the task in front of Britain's swimmers this week. "Sometimes it's not enough to do your best," he pronounced solemnly to the troops. "Sometimes you have to do what's required."

And what's required in Sheffield for those who want to represent Great Britain at this year's Olympic Games, is to finish first or second at the trials - which start today - and under the qualifying standards. Apart from last year's European Championships and USNationals, which served as preselection meets, this is the only chance to do it. It is sudden death.

It will be the most emotional of weeks for the swimmers, as four years of planning culminates in one performance. On Sunday when the trials and tribulations are over, the lucky few will be going home as Olympians, the rest will just be going home. But despite the excitement and tension that the trials format produces, it is the wrong way to select the Olympic team.

Swimming is suffering from the delusion of adequacy that is endemic across British sport. The argument for the sudden-death format runs as follows: if we have a high-pressure trials, we will select those swimmers who can stay calm on the biggest stage of all. It is a flawed premise, founded on the myth that we are a competitive nation in world swimming. The point is that no matter how much tension exists at the trials, it in no way recreates the conditions the swimmers will find in Sydney.

The right policy is to keep the trials, but also offer a qualifying window consisting of every major international competition from last summer's Europeans to this week's event. Then, come Sunday, the two fastest-ranked swimmers under the qualifying times will get in. Because of the familiar surroundings of Sheffield, and a relatively easy path to the final, most swimmers will still choose the trials to peak. However, it is more difficult to do best times at international meets, so if you can prove yourself on that stage, you are far more likely to do so again at an Olympics.

Another weakness of the current policy is that it does not allow for illness or short-term injury. Graeme Smith won bronze in the 1500m in Atlanta in 1996, and at his best, could do the same in Sydney. But if Smith twisted or pulled his back, he would not be able to swim this week, yet he would be back to form in a matter of days and Britain would be denied a possible medalist. The chances of this happening are small, but Britain is so thin on medal hopes that the policy must have a safety net to guarantee the best swimmers will be selected.

However, this week's events should throw up some fascinating races, most notably the battle between Steve Parry and James Hickman in the 200m butterfly. The women's 200m backstroke should also be a superb contest. A maximum of two swimmers can be selected, and three have been leapfrogging each other in the rankings this year. Katy Sexton is the Commonwealth champion, Helen Don-Duncan is the world short course silver medallist, but ahead of them both is the 18-year-old Jo Fargus, from Bath, who took the British record on her way to fourth place in this month's European championships in Helsinki.

The men's and women's 100m and 200m freestyle will see some of the closest finishes, as the swimmers attempt to win places on the relay teams. The 4 x 200m teams will go to Sydney with high hopes and for good reason. The women shattered the world record at the world short-course championships in March, and became the first British women's world record holders for 34 years.

The men, too, will hope to repeat the bronze they won at the World Championships in Perth in 1998. It is likely that Britain could select six swimmers for each of these relay teams, making for a storming finish in these events.

Elsewhere, it will be an interesting mix of youth and experience. The youth will come from Rebecca Cooke in the 800m freestyle and Nicola Jackson in the 100m butterfly. Against Jackson will be the 35-year-old Caroline Foot, who is bidding to qualify for her third Olympics, while Karen Pickering will be trying to get to her fourth Games in the 200m freestyle. Mark Foster, who has been showing good form in the 50m freestyle, is hoping to become only the second male swimmer ever to go to four Olympics.

The pre-selected trio of Paul Palmer, Sue Rolph and Alison Sheppard, only have to prove their fitness this week but pride will ensure they are not beaten easily.