SWIMMING; British step in the right direction

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The Independent Online
IF IT were against the law to be a successful swimming team and the British side was arrested, the jury might conclude that for the first time in years there may just be enough evidence to convict them.

Admittedly, two gold medals from last week's European Championships is no improvement from the two they won in Seville two years ago. But in court the prosecuting counsel would insist on the other evidence: the four silver and four bronze medals giving 10 in total, the highest medal count since 1958, plus one European, nine British and two Scottish records. And Sue Rolph became the first British woman European champion since Anita Lonsbrough in 1962, joining Paul Palmer for gold.

The championships saw an overall improvement in the depth of European swimming. Throughout the week the racing was intensely competitive. The times generally were not as close to world records as has been the case in the past, but this is a reflection of the fact that the world records today are mature. It was no surprise that the two world records set were in new additions to world long course swimming, the 50 butterfly and 50 backstroke.

Gone are the days of European Championships that see multiple world records. Like the Olympic Games, the focus is now the championship title. An additional factor was the introduction of semi-finals in all events up to 200 metres. Many of the swimmers were commenting on how tiring the programme had become, but all know that this will be the schedule for the Sydney Olympics and the week has been a valuable rehearsal for next year. The British team is tangibly different now in its professionalism than it was in Atlanta in '96.

The national performance director, Deryk Snelling, who was installed after Britain's disappointing showing there, has had to spend most of that time persuading the sport that it genuinely has people who can and should be winning major championships. And, moreover, that this condition should be seen as normal. He said: "We have had a very, very good championships, but there is still a lot of room for improvement between now and the Olympics. The women here have been outstanding. They have held their own and consistently have been into finals. I would say we had mixed results for the men. We had some disappointments and Paul Palmer had some luck. The depth of the team is increasing as a result of the lottery funding but only a few have really come through to the top.

"Now I have to focus on those swimmers for the Olympics. Confidence is 99 per cent of winning once the work has been done and funding has enabled us to go anywhere in the world to train and compete, to give us the confidence that no stone has been left unturned in our preparation."

Snelling then made the point that is going to make the biggest difference in British swimming. "This is not rocket science. It's sports science."

I am surprised that this aspect has largely been absent from the national programme in the last two years. For 20 years, the United States, Australia and particularly the Eastern block have given us warehouses of data on how to use the sciences to maximise swimming performance.

Britain has largely ignored it. By Snelling's four measures of success - gold medals, medals, finals and world rankings - we have not been as successful as he would have liked. Good, certainly, but not outstanding.

Snelling's view that 25 finals out of 38 events is "very successful" is a bit toward the end zone, but it is certainly an improvement. "The team is going to go home a little disappointed with the best championships we have had in a decade. And that would never have happened in the past," he concluded. And he is right.