Australia upbeat despite poor show at Swimming Worlds

File Photo : John Bertrand
IANS|22-Aug-2017 20:40

Canberra, Aug 22 : Australia last month produced its worst performance at a World Swimming Championships in 35 years but the sport's officials on Tuesday remained positive about the future, saying the swimming team's focus is purely on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

The Australian Dolphins finished the World Championships in Budapest in July with 10 medals, just one of which was gold, while long-time rivals from the United States swept the competition, winning 38 medals, reports Xinhua news agency.

China finished in equal third on the medals tally, also with 10 medals, three of which were gold.

The tally marks Australia's worst total medal tally at the event since 1994 and the worst result in terms of gold medals since 1982.

Australia's dominance in swimming, which has produced more Olympic medals for the country than any other sport, has been in steady decline since the early 2000s to the point where World Championships have fallen by the wayside. 

From 2001 to 2007, considered to be the peak of Australia's swimming performance, the Dolphins averaged 21 total medals from four World Championships -- a period that happened to coincide with Ian Thorpe's glittering career. Since 2007, the average has dropped to 13.6 medals.

Additionally, 48 per cent of the medals won by Australians at the World Championships from 2001 to 2007 were gold, a figure which has dropped to 23.5 percent since.

Despite the drop-off in podium finishes, John Bertrand, President of Swimming Australia, said he was not surprised by the performance in Budapest.

"It was as we expected actually," Bertrand told Xinhua on Tuesday. "In overview we had quite a few of our top athletes taking a year out of top level competition and we had a lot of rookies, about 40 per cent of the team was new to international competition at this level so overall we were not surprised to be where we finished.

"Our focus is on (the Olympic Games in) Tokyo in 2020 and from our perspective these World Championships were not a top priority."

Yet, worryingly for the Australian Olympic Committee, and swimming in particular, the Dolphins' performances in recent Olympics have mirrored the general decline in results over the past decade.

At three Olympic Games from 2000 to 2008, the Dolphins averaged 17.6 Olympic medals, six of which were gold on average.

At the two Summer Olympics since 2008, in London and Rio, Australia won a total of 20 medals in the pool, four of which were gold.

The poor performances have been a bitter pill to swallow for Australians who are accustomed to seeing their swimmers succeed against the world's best, despite the nation's relatively small population and limited funding.

The nature of Olympic performances have only served to further disenfranchise Australians from the sport with a number of swimmers considered to be favourites in their chosen discipline failing to live up to pre-meet expectations.

Compared to the stars of the pool at Australia's peak, such as Thorpe, Grant Hackett and Libby Trickett, few of the modern generation have won the affections of the Australian public in the same way.

Bertrand, who assumed the Presidency of Swimming Australia in 2013, conceded that discrepancy in funding meant Australia would likely never again top the medal count at an international swimming meet but said that reality would not dissuade Swimming Australia.

"When (23-time Olympic gold medallist) Michael Phelps retired people thought it was an era over for the U.S. but more American swimmers have burst onto the scene to continue that dominance and I can't see that changing," Bertrand said in an interview with Xinhua.

"But what we saw in the total medal count in Budapest was that China, Russia and Australia were tied for second so that is promising for us.

"With a population of 27 million people, Australia is punching above its weight."

Even if additional funding was forthcoming the extra money might only serve to fuel the public's cynicism towards the team, especially if there isn't an immediate turnaround in performance.

Instead, Swimming Australia and the wider sporting public have to confront the reality that the medal tallies of the late 1990s and early 2000s were outliers and recent results such as those in Budapest are indicative of swimming's new world order.