With baseball starting, March Madness on deck and the NBA and NHL playoffs in the hole, one can be forgiven for not having contemplated the dire state of competitive distance swimming in this country. Fortunately, the towel wringers at USA Swimming are there to do it for you.
Recently, the Colorado Springs-based governing body of the splashy sport announced the cure for what ails it with the only real incentive left in top-level athletics. It has posted a $1 million-dollar reward each for the American guy and girl who grab the gold in the 2004 Olympics' longest freestyle events -- the men's 1,500-meter and the women's 800-meter races. The second criterion for the prize is that they must break the world records in the process. Another $500,000 has been thrown into the kitty for each athlete's "primary" coach.
In some ways, the incentive provides a helpful service. Traditionally, at the close of each Summer Olympics, commentators take a stab at guessing what a gold medal is worth, in endorsements and exposure, to its winner. What are the relative cash merits of becoming the Best Athlete in the World (decathlon winner) versus the Fastest Man in the World (100-meter winner) versus America's Sweetheart (the U.S. gymnast judged to be the darned cutest)? Now, at least, we have a starting point. Being the person who can swim the fastest the longest may not get you on the front of a Wheaties box. But it is worth a million bucks.
For most top-level athletes, the idea of competing for anything but money is such an outdated abstraction that to consider something like, oh, say, national pride or competitive joy is laughable. So why is it that a $1 million-dollar payoff for Olympic swimmers is so rankling?
Some of it must be stale nostalgia for a time when people tried to win...just because. "I liked the sport a lot better when there was no money," admits Dennis Pursley, national team director for USA Swimming, and the man most responsible for the scheme. "I sit in meetings with coaches and swimmers today where all the focus, energy and passion are on money. And I remember sitting in meetings when all that focus, energy and passion was concentrated simply on swimming fast."
"But," he adds, "I'm also a realist. Money is here, and it's here to stay. So our goal is to use it in a way that can help us the most."
Swimming is one of the few remaining Olympic sports that doesn't promise a lucrative professional career after the Games. Still, it is naive to think that plenty of money has not filtered in. Professional tournaments have been popular in Europe and Australia for several years. And, while no one in a rubber cap and bug-eyed goggles is threatening Tiger's purchasing power, successful swimmers can expect to earn six-figure endorsement deals.
The idea of a quasi-governmental bonus for medals is not new, either. The U.S. Olympic committee pays $15,000 to gold-medal winners in every sport. And for the past decade, USA Swimming has added much richer prizes for its own winners: $50,000 for Olympic gold, $25,000 for winning the World Championships -- even a $12,500 prize for the Pan-Pacific Championships.
Maybe the reason that the cash carrot grates is that history -- and sports history in particular -- has shown that, no matter its intentions, money always becomes corrosive. Imagine the conflicts: What about the club coach who, with limited lane space available for practice, looks at his 1,500-meter star and sees a half-million dollar payday?
In addition, "The money that's going to the coaches is creating more hassle than it's worth," complains Jon Urbanchek, head of the highly successful University of Michigan team and a longtime Olympic coach. "I've heard some coaches arguing about how much of the money they would be entitled to." Is it the coach who discovered the swimmer? Or the one who trained him up until he qualified for the Olympics?
Perhaps the biggest annoyance is that when you check the stats, it turns out that USA Swimming's long-distance medal bounty is just another cynical strategy to get someone to pay attention to them -- Temptation Island in the swimming pool.
USA Swimming believes the catastrophe is the result of changes in how swimmers are trained and raced, causing America's long-distance racers to suffer. There is some truth to that. Recent rule changes in how NCAA meets are won have given a huge advantage to collegiate swim teams that boast strong sprinters. A 100-meter specialist, for example, could earn his team up to three meet points -- one for the 100-meter race, another for the 400-meter relay and a third for the 400 medley -- while a 1,500-meter star is only good for a single point.
As a result, some ninety percent of university swimming scholarships go to sprinters. "A college scholarship is a primary incentive for young kids to stay in the sport," points out Pursley.
And there has been a slowdown in the progression of American records in the men's distance events. Starting in 1963 and continuing through the mid-1970s, up-and-coming American swimmers broke the U.S. 1,500-meter record almost yearly. However, the 1976 record stood until 1984. That record didn't fall until last August, after sixteen years. The current U.S.-record holder, Chris Thompson, is still fifteen seconds shy of the world record.
America's male distance swimmers have also been in an Olympic slump. With the exception of Thompson's bronze medal in Sydney, no American man has won a 1,500-meter medal since 1984.
But the larger truth is that U.S. men's swimming in general has been in a trough -- even with the marquee sprint events. No American man has won a gold medal in the 200-meter race since 1976. Life hasn't been much better in the 100-meter, either. Rowdy Gaines and Matt Biondi won the event in 1984 and '88, respectively, but the U.S. team was shut out entirely in 1992. Since then, only one silver and one bronze medal have been taken home by an American 100-meter swimmer -- both by the same person, Gary Hall.
Offering a high-profile $1 million-dollar prize to the next American woman 800-meter gold-medal winner/ world-record holder makes even less sense, although for the exact opposite reason. With the exception of the U.S.-boycotted 1980 games in Moscow, an American woman has brought back the Olympic gold in the event every year since 1968. The current world-record holder, Janet Evans, is also an American.
It's difficult to imagine who, exactly, the $1 million dollars is supposed to attract. The best swimmers, who have climbed to the top without the incentive, are unlikely to modify their lives now that it's there. "I haven't made any changes in the way I train," says Thompson, the 2000 bronze medal winner. "I was planning on being in the 2004 Games anyway. The money hasn't made a difference."
And does anyone really believe that some teenager putting in 100,000 meters a week in a pool in Des Moines, who can't even keep track of his allowance, will decide to gut it out because of the promise of a pile of dough three years hence? "I really don't think swimmers do this for the money," says Urbanchek.
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Indeed, when you get down to it, the only real reason for the bounty is for attention -- a crude attempt to lengthen the public's attention span from 22 seconds, the time it takes to complete the popular 50-meter sprint, to fifteen minutes, the time a top swimmer requires to complete 1,500 meters.
"I suppose it will give us more exposure and spectator appeal," says Urbanchek. "The only time people pay attention to our sport is once every four years for a couple of weeks. Now you might have people actually come in off the street and watch a 1,500-meter swim meet."
Heck, it might work. As all those people flocking to the Texas Rangers' training camp to catch a glimpse of what a quarter-billion-dollar shortstop looks like can tell you, it's not necessarily the quality of competition that attracts us. Sometimes it's the size of the prize.