New Olympic Rule Requires Relay Alternates To Compete

A change in FINA rules will now require all relay alternates at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games to compete in either prelims or finals.

Traditionally, nations with enough swimmers under the FINA “B” cut will bring up to 6 swimmers per relay, giving them the option of resting some swimmers in prelims, or letting a few swimmers compete in prelims for the right to a slot in the finals relay.

But FINA’s qualification system for the 2016 Rio Games has a new section that complicates that strategy somewhat:

If an NOC [National Olympic Committee] enters relay-only swimmers for a specific event, these swimmers must swim either in the heat or final of that relay event. Should a relay-only swimmer not compete, this will lead to the disqualification of the respective team in the final.

That section is not in the qualifying procedures from the 2012 London Olympics, which you can read here.

The biggest impact of the new rule will be that federations will have to make their decisions early on as to who will swim prelims and finals of the freestyle relays, because those decisions will affect how many relay-only alternates to bring along to Rio.

Of particular note is the U.S. men’s 4×100 free relay, which missed the final at the World Championships last summer. USA Swimming will have to weigh out its options, deciding whether a relay team with two alternates can still earn a lane in the finals, and if that risk is worth resting a few swimmers in prelims. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in particular have previously been members of that relay who have taken on difficult individual event lineups that made it an attractive option to swim alternates in their places in prelims.

On the other hand, if the London Olympics are any indicator, the U.S. men should have no qualms with including and swimming multiple alternates in Rio. The London 4×100 free relay swam an entirely different lineup from prelims to finals, and still took second in both. The 4×200 free relay only had Conor Dwyer compete in both prelims and finals, swapping out the other three legs. That team was first out of heats and won the gold in finals.

USA Swimming has not released its official selection criteria for the U.S. Olympic Team yet, but it will be worth keeping an eye on the criteria when they do, as the nation might consider leaving 5th- and 6th-place finishers in the 100 and 200 freestyles up to the federation’s discretion to be added or passed over as Olympians depending on each relay’s relative strength compared to the rest of the world.

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I assume there will be exceptions for injuries and illnesses? Is that explicitly covered though or likely to be a “duh” rule?

Coach Chackett

No. If someone is sick, they will have to swim anyway. Otherwise the rule doesn’t matter. I’m “feeling sick”. I guess I can’t swim.

If this is on purpose it is another rule designed with crosshairs at the United States team.

A modern version of the stupid rule that only allows us to enter two swimmers Per event.


Agreed this rule is annoying. However, if we look at the last 4 Olympics, how many times did our #5 or #6 swimmers not swim in the morning? I believe it’s exceptionally rare.

And There will certainly be an injury/illness exception. Agreed that saying you “feel sick” won’t be enough. I assume you would need *independent medical verification*. But if a swimmer breaks his hand the day before or is burning a 104-degree fever, it’s absurd to think the team would be forced to make him swim.


Realistically, SwimGeek’s scenario of independent verification of illness/injury would be required. Clearly a case of a swimmer injuring themselves after arrival in Rio but prior to competition would not expected to compete and would only require a tick in the box from the relevant FINA med official for the meet. To be honest, a lot of hot air is being discharged over frankly something fairly minor. This is no “Target USA” exercise but rather a small and somewhat ineffectual FINA response to IOC’s edict to the relevant sports to “cap their numbers”. This has NOT been snuck in at the last minute but has been on the final qualification document released in March 2015. Why do I class it as… Read more »

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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