Are We Sure that Morning Finals at the Olympics is Bad for Athletes?

Editorial content on SwimSwam is the opinion of its author, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of SwimSwam.

Ever since FINA announced in July that it favored morning finals for the Olympic swimming events at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, and then Tokyo organizers confirmed that decision this week, calls have gone out across the comments, and social media, that this was another case of “FINA choosing money over athletes.”

There seems to be an overwhelming opinion that morning finals are worse for the swimmers than evening finals. In Rio, the claim was that night-time finals were worse for swimmers than evening finals.

It’s starting to make me wonder when we decided that the hours between 6PM and 8PM are the peak moments for athletes to swim fast. Studies has shown that individual athletes have different times where they perform better based on genotypes and circadian rhythms – but that peak performance time is not universal. Some have disputed the findings, but basically, night owls’ performance peaks at around 8PM, while early birds tend to perform better “mid-day.” Skeptical or not, there’s no definitive science available yet as to whether athletes are universally better off competing mid-day or in evenings. Swimming does probably tend to self-select, at least in the United States, toward early-birds, as compared to other sports.

While not universal, as a sport swimming has decided that morning practices are a part of our culture, with some arguing that they’re better than evening practices. And yet, with such a huge portion of our athletes training in the morning, why do we decide that morning competition is somehow a bad thing? I think there’s an argument to be made that the traditional evening final is as much about the money (it’s harder to get fans to show up in the mornings than evening) than is a morning final.

The last time this was done at a meet of this scale, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, was when Michael Phelps won his 8 gold medals – which, unless you were a swimmer who won a silver medal in one of those races, was universally ‘good for swimming’ on a metaphysical level. But, looking even competitively, there were 19 World  Records broken in those finals. Yes, the suits – but those suits were also worn in prelims, and everyone still managed to get faster in finals. We’re talking about elite athletes in the prime of their physical conditioning – who can react to and adapt to change much more quickly than the rest of us can.

Below, I’ll lay out some arguments in favor of each case, and leave it to you to decide. We’re trying to come up with a way to parse data and get some more definitive answers (there aren’t a lot of international samples to choose from, but there are some lower-level meets, like high school state championships, that could provide relevant data). In the meantime, it’s possible that morning finals are worse for swimmers, but to me, it’s not as definitive as some of the rage-Tweets have made it sound, and warrants more investigation before it warrants more emotion.

Meanwhile, we’d love to hear from international-caliber athletes about what concerns you have about racing in finals. Please email us [email protected] if you have thoughts to share.

Why Morning Finals Might be Good for Athletes

  • With morning finals, athletes actually get a longer rest period between prelims and semi-finals and finals. If semi-finals and finals are the more important races (we must be operating under the assumption that they are, or this debate wouldn’t matter), then this should be a good thing. In London, where swimming had an ‘idealistic’ 10AM start time for prelims and 7:30 start time for finals, athletes were left about seven-and-a-half hours between prelims and finals. If flipped, athletes would’ve been left about 12 hours between prelims and finals – time for a full sleep, to refuel, to rehydrate, to relax, to get treatments.
  • I’m confident, though I can’t prove it, that more swimmers are training at 7 or 8 in the morning than are training at 8 or 9 at night. If athletes are used to training within a few hours of waking up, why would competing at those times be a problem?
  • Interviews and media work for top athletes can take up a significant amount of time after finals’ sessions. By moving those finals sessions to the morning, that media time can be taken mid-day, rather than late into the night. While athletes will (sometimes) still need recovery time between the morning and evening sessions even when they’re flipped, this should be a more predictable routine mid-day than late at night; and if there’s lost ‘recovery time’ with all of the post-finals requirements on athletes, that lost time is before prelims rather than before finals. (Sidebar: I’ve been trying to determine all day if there’s more drug testing after prelims than finals. I can’t find any published data, and anecdotal results have been a mixed bag. If there’s more testing after finals, that’s another point in the tally of morning finals, for similar reasons as above.)
  • Swimmers now won’t have to swim the morning after the Opening Ceremonies. Many swimmers skip the march because they have to be up and racing early the next day. With it flipped, the racing starts the next evening. Some swimmers will still skip the opening ceremonies to save their tapers, but the shift at least allows for a little more freedom in that regard.
  • If we hone in on athletes who have designs on semi-finals finals, that group will, by definition, have to race twice in the same day on fewer occasions. Under the traditional format, athletes who advance to semi-finals (or finals in cases of the 400 IM and 400 free) by definition have to race twice in the same day. Some athletes with bigger schedules (think Hosszu, Ledecky, Dressel) will still have to swim finals and come back later to swim prelims, but that will be a far less-common occurrence, and for that matter will have the more important races first, and the races where top athletes can afford to cruise after.
  • McDonald’s, which typically is a big player in the dining at the athletes’ village, serves healthier breakfast than lunch or dinner (and as much as we’d all like to believe that they’re not, many athletes are definitely eating McDonald’s at the Olympics – so much so that the McDonald’s had to put a soft cap in Rio on the number of items an athlete can order at one time: 20).

Why Morning Finals Might be Bad for Athletes

  • They’re used to competing in evenings. Most major meets have evening finals. Athletes’ race-day routines are built around morning prelims and evening finals. With sufficient warning, it shouldn’t be difficult for wealthier nations to come up with a plan to adjust those routines (and to practice those new plans). But perhaps it could negatively-impact athletes from smaller federations with fewer support structures in place.
  • It ‘makes sense.’ For some top athletes, it will make more sense in their heads to cruise in prelims, as kind of a warm-up swim for the harder push they’ll need in finals.
  • If we make the leap that there is more anxiety and nervousness for athletes before a semi-final or a final than there is before a prelims swim, having that break between the two be the overnight shift could impact the ‘long’ sleep, as compared to just making it hard for athletes to nap between sessions.
  • Morning rush hours in Tokyo tend to be worse than evening rush hours (though usually for Olympics, there’s designated lanes and traffic management plans that make this not-an-issue).

 

 

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Steve Nolan

These are some good arguments! The media thing after finals makes the most sense – sessions ended HELLA late in Rio, so I could see that being the most burdensome part of the meet for some swimmers. To me, I don’t really think it impacts the swimmers that much. I just find it a biggole slap in the face to the host country – America always gets to decide what’s best!! – and it’d feel weird as a spectator to have finals in the morning. (I was so damn hyped in Rio right after all the finals sessions, just like…continuing on with the day and then coming back later for heats just *seems* weird. Could be wrong tho, maybe it’ll… Read more »

renédescartes

Is it really to cater to the American fans though, or is it just what NBC wants? I honestly hate watching the tape delay. I want to see it live.

overtraining

“Sessions ended HELLA late in Rio”. That was because they held the finals too late, in order to cater for the American fans. In the case of Rio, it was actually a night final instead of an evening final. The schedule in London was just fine: finals were in the evening and media sessions were not late at all.

Steve Nolan

Well, you’d have earlier prelims then, right? Similar issues with media after night finals if you have to wake up earlier for prelims.

Caeleb Dressel Will Win 9 Gold Medals in Tokyo

It was a disaster in Beijing obviously. Phelps choked at that meet so hard.

torchbearer

Maybe he coped with it when the rest of the competition didn’t … (unlikely yes, but you never know)

overtraining

We need serious statistics instead of simply giving an example of a single person. If the person is an obvious outlier (such as the GOAT) instead of an ordinary swimmer, we can not draw any conclusion from his performance.

He said What?

How much did the morning finals affect Katie Hoff? She wasn’t her usual dominant-self at those Olympics and I often wondered if the morning finals threw her off. Just curious.

BSWIMMER

when was she her dominant self at any olympics. she was too busy choking in the last 10 meters or crying in the bathroom

Caeleb Dressel Will Win 9 Gold Medals in Tokyo

And yes, a moment of silence for Laszlo Cseh, who won 3 silver medals at Beijing. Wonder why

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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