Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Makes the Short Course Worlds so Fun (and Terrible)

Glamour shot of Peter Mankoc? Glamour shot of Peter Mankoc

Today in Istanbul, the 2012 edition of the World Short Course Championships got underway. Depending on which of my multiple personalities I ask, this meet is either more fun than swimming should be allowed, or a total embarrassment. In honor of this year's meet, let's discuss both:

What Makes it So Fun:

-Watching swimmers who, if the Olympics were somehow also short course, would have vastly different careers. Some of the names at the top of this morning's preliminaries would be the same in a long course meet, Ryan Lochte in the 200 free, for instance. Yet, scroll down to the 100 backstroke and, hey, there's Robert Hurley. Hurley is far from the top of the world in long course, and that makes him unfamiliar to most everybody with the exception of hardcore swim nerds, Braden Keith, and Braden Keith's twin brother that he keeps locked in a basement except for when he sleeps to give the impression that he never sleeps. Of all the top qualifiers this morning, Hurley's gap between short course and long course ability is the most dramatic, and it's fun to feel like he has a chance to beat someon like Matt Grevers, whom he would have no chance against in long course meters.

-The meet is also a chance to see a different side of established starts. Back to Lochte here for a second: swimming fans get a lot of excitement out of watching him do his thing underwater. The short course format means even more underwater fun, and it also changes him as a swimmer. Lochte swam a credible 100 fly in Omaha over the summer, but in short course he could win the world title. Wouldn't it have been fun to watch Lochte square off with Phelps in his prime in a short course 100 fly?

-All the sprinting. Let's be honest: at any given meet fan interest in sprint races far exceeds interest in watching distance events. The short course format promises us an extra sprint event for every stroke plus two more bonuses the long course meet can't: a 100 IM and 4x50 relays. Again, the quirks of this means more wacky things ensue: Roland Schoeman in the 50 breaststroke? YES! Can you imagine how smack he is going to talk to countryman Cameron van der Burgh if he beats him?

On the other hand:

-This meet is missing a lot. of. swimmers. It's really hard to feel like it's a legitimate World Championship meet when so many of the best swimmers in the world don't attend. The stakes are so low for this meet, with it's timing inconvenient for so many and the times far less important globally than long course, that many events are missing out on a true race. If top seed Lotte Friis wins the 800 free tomorrow, fans will feel cheated out of a race between her and world record holder Camille Muffat.

-What do the times mean? I don't mean to suggest that we don't have any frame of reference for times at this meet. Of course there are world records, and rough conversion factors that are imperfect for 100% of swimmers. It goes without saying, though, that probably every short course record is not quite as "fast" as the long course record. And this is the one meet where nearly everyone involved may feel some obligation to translate the times into another course. American swimming fans do this with long course as well, but around the rest of the world you won't find many people wondering how a long course time translates into short course meters.

-It's nice to entertain the thought for a moment that, were the Olympics in short course meters, we would be debating whether Peter Mankoc is the greatest swimmer of all time. The more I think about it I come to the more boring revelation that, even if they changed the format for Rio today, many of the world's best long course swimmers would put their efforts towards improving their short course ability and probably beat the Peter Mankoc's of the world anyway.

So where does that leave us? I mean, I finished with the negative stuff so I'm feeling a little bummed out. On the other hand: 100 IM!:


  1. I still think short course swimming should go into the winter olympics. Swimming is very popular in the summer games, why not double up? I mean the Olympics is more of a business than a real "movement" these days, it's hard to believe they'd leave all that money on the table.

  2. I love that idea Rob D. Has it ever been discussed before?

  3. Not in any serious fashion that I'm aware of, but they should!

  4. 100IM + 400IM = THE definative swim events

  5. They do the 100 IM at the Chesapeake Pro-Am once every few years. Watching a world class heat swim it gives you a weird feeling that is not quite nostalgia, a little bit uncharted territory, and a lot "damn, I wanna un-retire and see how fast I could go!"

  6. You may be interested to know that Robert Hurley has won numerous long course and short course Australian Championships, the long course over 400m,800m and 1500m. Because of these commitments he rarely competes in backstroke over the long course. Seems to enjoy short course backstroke and was a onetime world record holder in the 50m backstroke short course.

    He is high up on the all-time lists for Australia in the long course freestyles.