Swimming: Palmer leads the way as Britain look to the future

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The Independent Online
Medals are notoriously hard to come by at World Championships. But as preparations continue for the swimming disciplines in Perth, the British are more concerned with blooding their promising youngsters. James Parrack reports.

"Show me the money," cried the British team after their disaster in Atlanta last year. Now the financial tap has finally been turned on and the pool is rapidly filling with talented young swimmers from whom much will be expected in the coming years.

The eighth World Championships opened in Perth, Western Australia, yesterday for 12 days of competition, but the swimmers do not start work until 9 o'clock on Monday morning, led by Paul Palmer and Mark Foster.

Both will be fired up from outstanding performances at last summer's European Championships in Seville, where Palmer won two golds and a bronze, and Foster won silver. But the real excitement will come with the opening of a bottle of team spirit labelled "men's 4x200 freestyle relay" on Tuesday. Champions of Europe, they will be challenging the Americans and Australians. It is the closest Britain is likely to come to gold medals since David Wilkie won two in 1975.

But at World Championship level, medals are notoriously difficult to collect and Deryk Snelling, Britain's performance director, is no fool. "The top spots are owned by an elite group from the last Olympics. In Perth we are developing a professional, businesslike attitude." The plan is that the new wave of talent will be blooded into a team of professionals with a clear vision of their future.

Other nations may have plans, but none can be as cunning as the one Snelling has. "Step one is to get our young swimmers comfortable at world competitions. Then we must make the top eight. From there we will step on to the podium."

The other two men capable of making that step are the world short-course champion, James Hickman, and the Olympic bronze medallist, Graeme Smith. In the surprise absence of the world champion and multiple world record holder, Denis Pankratov, in the 200 metres butterfly, Hickman will relish the chance to pick up a minor medal. He will be supported by Steve Parry, who showed great maturity in his international debut, winning bronze in Seville.

With no medals from the 1994 worlds in Rome, the team will be aiming to better the two they won from Atlanta. The trend for British swimmers to populate main finals and consolation finals is an encouraging one that the team must continue in Perth. The women, however, still have some catching up to do and will be hard pushed to make an individual final.

But the women's events as a whole are likely to provide an unwelcome focus. The whispers around the pooldeck of drug use by the Chinese women has turned to shouting, especially given yesterday's seizure at Perth airport. At a meeting in Perth on Tuesday, enormous pressures was put on the governing body of world swimming, Fina, to maintain a four-year ban on steroid users, instead of following the international line and reducing it to two. The Fina president intervened amid vociferous arguments to announce the retention of the four-year ban.

In German courts at the moment, former East German swimmers are claiming damages for abuse, after being forced to take steroids as young as the age of 12. Six coaches and doctors stand accused. Feeling is so strong about the issue that spectators may take the unprecedented step of turning their back on medal ceremonies dominated by Chinese. The symbolic silence would be deafening.