Short course long on action and glamour

James Parrack on the pool of talent meeting in Gothenburg
Click to follow
The Independent Online
This year sees an irrevocable change in world swimming. Standing on the blocks at the third World Short-Course Championships, which begin on Thursday in Gothenburg, the swimmers will be standing on the threshold of professionalism.

It has come as a direct result of the glamorous nature of short-course swimming. In a pool half the size of the Olympic 50-metre "long course" pool, the extra number of turns make the events faster and closer. With the crowd tightly packed into a smaller arena and much closer to the action, the atmosphere is intensely exciting.

This brings in television, which in turn attracts increasingly bigger sponsors. The cycle has been building to a watershed at this year's World Cup circuit. Eight competitions run back to back from East Asia to Western Europe, and the athletes race as much as 16 times in two weeks. This year's series offered an unprecedented total prize fund of more than pounds 120,000 and began an open season of professional swimming around the world.

Many cities are seeing the World Cup series as a commercial opportunity, and it is expected to expand into Kuala Lumpur, the host city for the Commonwealth Games next year, Australia and the Americas, to become a truly global racing circuit. The potential for the World Cup lies in the fact that few can now ignore the huge excitement when world-class athletes race each other for big money. People queued for two and a half hours in Paris and 10,000 boisterous spectators crowded Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro to watch swimming at the highest level. The World Cup organisers hope television will follow the crowd, sponsors will follow the television and with cash as an incentive, more athletes will train and compete harder to get it.

Now, after the most successful World Cup series ever, short-course swimming is set to explode this week in Gothenburg.

With short-course swimming providing the catalyst for professionalism in the sport, it is no surprise that our best medal prospects, James Hickman, Susan Rolph and the Olympic medallist Graeme Smith, have decided to abandon their University and college courses to focus solely on their professional swimming careers.

The athlete who has travelled furthest up her professional learning curve this year is Rolph. The 18-year-old has had a series of individual medley successes this winter, beginning with the European title in December. "In the past I've only done one of the World Cup meets. This year I did four competitions in two weeks and used it as a training fortnight of very high quality sessions. I knew I'd be tired, but I wanted to see how I'd cope with getting off a plane one day and swimming the next. You've got to be strong-minded about it and now I'm No 1 in the world rankings for the 200 medley going into the worlds."

Change, however, is always anathema to the purists, who see short-course swimming as something of a diversion to "real" swimming, which, for them, will only ever be long course. The Olympic Games, because of the massive media attention it generates, will always be the glamour event of world swimming. But once every four years is not enough to sustain a swimmer or a sport.

And who can honestly say that in five years' time, the World Short-Course Championships will be the poor relation to its longer brother? Long course will certainly be more prestigious, but will it be as exciting? It is a debate which resonates through other sports: one-day cricket versus the Test match, the penalty shoot-out and so on.

Professional swimming and short-course swimming now have a momentum which cannot be stopped. To succeed you have to be totally professional. And you have to be in Gothenburg this weekend.