With just 4 sessions remaining at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, we have seen a pair of relay World Records fall. In the women’s 400 free relay, Australia conquered the record, while in the women’s 800 free relay, the top three teams were faster than the old World Record, led by China, the USA, and Australia.
But there have been no individual World Records set so far at these Olympic Games, and that stands as a historical anomaly. If no World Records are broken in the last 3 days of competition, then it will be the first time since 1952 where no individual World Records fall.
The two relay records saved this meet from a more dubious recognition – every Olympic swim meet since World Records in swimming were first consistently kept has had at least one World Record broken. In 1904, the races were in yards – which didn’t have World Records at the time. In 1900 and 1896, while there were probably World Records, they weren’t well-organized. FINA’s establishment in 1908 as the global governing body really brought some consistency to World Records, so that is, essentially, the start of the “World Record” era.
According to SwimSwam’s research, the 1936, 1948, and 1952 Olympic Games had only relay World Records set.
World Record trends at recent Olympic Games:
- Tokyo 2020 – 2 (so far)
- Rio 2016 – 8
- London 2012 – 9
- Beijing 2008 – 24*
- Athens 2004 – 8
- Sydney 2000 – 14
*In 2008, special suits made partially of polyurethane were allowed, leading to a rush of World Records. This would continue through the end of 2009, when the suits were outlawed.
While not across-the-board, there has definitely been a trend of slow times in Olympic finals this week in Tokyo.
75% of SwimSwam’s readers thought there would be 7 or fewer World Records in Tokyo, and so far they’ve been right.
There are lots of theories on why this is happening. Some theorize that the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit some nations and athletes harder than others. On its own, this isn’t fully explaining, because we’ve seen lots of fast swimming around the world throughout the pandemic.
Another theory relates to the morning finals sessions not being the usual rhythm for elite racing. The IOC moved finals to the morning so that they would be in primetime for American television and NBC’s multi-billion dollar television deal. Of course, that didn’t seem to have as much impact at the 2008 Olympic Games, where the same plan was used and Michael Phelps won 8 Olympic gold medals.
And so perhaps the real recipe has to do with the combination of the two. The stress of the COVID-19 impact that has not necessarily hit all corners of the world (or even an individual county) equally, plus the morning finals. COVID caused many athletes to have to scramble to assemble racing opportunities and didn’t leave as many opportunities to practice these morning finals. Limited pool time among COVID restrictions forced many athletes to “train when they could” and limit opportunities to prepare a training schedule tailored to this competition schedule.
COVID restrictions for many countries meant a later arrival in the village. That means less time to adapt to their new rooms and environs prior to the start of competition, which maybe led to not sleeping as well and being less alert for morning finals.
At some point, we know that World Records will begin to slow down in pace as humans come closer to the physical limits. Track & Field World Records, for example, often survive for decades, which has never been common in swimming. It doesn’t seem like such a dramatic slowdown is yet in play, though, even as we still work to conquer the hurdles of the 2008 and 2009 supersuit era.
So will this streak be broken? There are still a few reasonable chances based on trend and form. Check out the most likely World Records over the last few days of competition.
Best World Record Possibilities, Remaining 4 Sessions of Tokyo 2020 Olympics
- Tatjana Schoenmaker, South Africa, 200 breaststroke – Schoenmaker looked good in the 100 breaststroke and has looked really good through 2 rounds of the 200 breaststroke. She swam a 2:19.16 in prelims of the event, setting the Olympic Record, and missing the World Record by just .05 seconds. She looks like a heavy favorite for gold through two races, but we have to remember that in the 100 breaststroke, she set an Olympic Record in prelims as well but was slower in each subsequent round.
- Caeleb Dressel, USA, 50 free/100 fly – Dressel won the giant head-to-head matchup in the men’s 100 free in a new Olympic Record of 47.02. That’s not far away from his best time of 46.96 (or the World Record of 46.91 for that matter). His start was as good as ever though, and he had a huge lead at about 40 meters before Kliment Kolesnikov and Kyle Chalmers began closing on him. If Dressel hits everything technically right in the 50 free, he could get Cesar Cielo’s World Record of 20.91 in the 50 free. The 100 fly is within reach too (he set it in semifinals at the 2019 World Championships), but the 50 free really feels like the target.
- Evgeny Rylov, Russia, 200 back – Rylov already has an Olympic gold medal in the 100 backstroke, which deviates from his early-career preference for the 200 back. In the 200 back semi-finals on Thursday he looked good. His time of 1:54.54 wasn’t close to his best time (1:53.23) let alone the World Record (1:51.92 from 2009 by Aaron Peirsol), but it looked smooth and it looked easy. To the eyeballs, it feels like Ryosuke Irie’s #2 all-time mark of 1:52.51, also from 2009, is in big trouble. Peirsol’s record looks really far away, but I don’t think it’s totally out of reach.
- All 3 Medley Relays – The World Records in each of three remaining relays, the mixed, men’s, and women’s medley relays, are in danger, in that order, in this writer’s opinion. If the US gets a breaststroke leg from Michael Andrew (or Nic Fink) that he’s capable of, they have the 52.1 backstroker (Ryan Murphy), the 49.7 butterflier (Caeleb Dressel), and the 46.8 freestyler (Zach Apple) to clear this record. The mixed medley felt coming in like it would easily be broken, though nobody looked too threatening in prelims (China, the World Record holders, should be able to go much faster). The women’s record would be a taller task with no American sprinter showing 51.8 anchor speed, though it’s definitely not out of the question.