The first opportunity for countries to qualify swimming relays for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan comes at the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships, which begin next week in Gwangju, South Korea. These qualifying spots go to a nation, which can then fill their relays with whichever individuals they like.
16 relays are taken to the Olympics in each of 7 relay events, which includes the new mixed 400 medley relay that will be raced at the Games for the first time in Tokyo.
The Basic Qualifying –
- The top 12 teams from the heats of each relay at the World Championships automatically qualify for the Olympics. This means if a team is top 12 in prelims, but DQs in the finals, they still are qualified for Worlds, thus relieving any “safe start” pressure and producing a truer final.
- The next 4 best teams at FINA-approved qualifying events from March 1st, 2019 to May 31st, 2020 (including the World Championships) will join them to make 16
- If any qualified teams, including those placing top 12 at Worlds, decline their spot, then the next-best teams from the March 1st, 2019 to May 31st, 2020 qualifying period will go to the Olympics. In other words, if a top 12 team from Worlds declines their spot, it doesn’t automatically go to team number 13 from Worlds.
Relay Only Swimmers –
Each country can bring a certain number of relay-only swimmers (swimmers who have not qualified in individual events) depending on the number of relays that they have qualified. Relay-only swimmers (and relay counts) are not gender-specific. In other words, if a team qualifies 3 men’s relays and 1 women’s relay, they get 6 additional relay-only swimmers, which could be used to bring 4 extra women and 2 extra men, for example.
To be entered as a “relay only” swimmer, an athlete must have at least the Olympic “B” qualifying time in the corresponding individual event to the relay leg they’re swimming. Swimmers who are qualified in an individual event do not have to meet this qualification.
It is conceivable, then, that a relay could finish in the top 12 at the World Championships and, with not enough individual qualifiers, still not be able to swim that relay at the Olympics – though that hasn’t happened that we know o f.
Relay-only swimmers must swim in either the heat or the final of the relay event that they are entered for. If they do not, it will result in disqualification of the relay. Medical injuries or emergencies, on confirmation from the FINA Sports Medicine Committee, will nullify this rule.
It is feasible
- One relay – 2 “relay only” swimmers
- Two relays – 4 “relay only” swimmers
- Three relays – 6 “relay only” swimmers
- Four relays – 8 “relay only” swimmers
- Five relays – 10 “relay only” swimmers
- six or seven relays – 12 “relay only” swimmers
In 2016, only one team that finished in the top 12 in a relay at Worlds declined their spot at the Olympics: the British men in the 400 free relay. They were just 10th in the event at Worlds that year.
There haven’t always been 12 relays competing at Worlds, either: in 2010, there were only 10 teams entered in the women’s 800 free relay. With Olympic qualifying spots on the line, however, we expect there to be at least 12 in each event, even if it means an underqualified relay sneaking in to grab some glory.
Across-the-board, the times were much faster in the pre-Olympic year 2015, with qualifying on the line, than they were in 2013 or 2017.
|2013 – 12th place||2015 – 12th place||2017 – 12th place|
|M 400 free relay||Turkey – 3:20.00||Germany/US – 3:16.01||South Africa – 3:17.41|
|M 800 free relay||Canada – 7:17.17||Denmark – 7:13.72||Denmark – 7:15.95|
|M 400 medley relay||Brazil – 3:36.31||Lithuania – 3:35.30||Canada – 3:35.14|
|W 400 free relay||Spain – 3:42.08||Poland – 3:40.89||Hong Kong – 3:44.39|
|W 800 free relay||Singapore – 8:15.91||Germany – 8:01.48||(10th) Denmark – 8:06.67|
|W 400 medley relay||Brazil – 4:06.91||France – 4:02.13||New Zealand – 4:07.09|
|M 400 medley relay||–||Colombia – 3:55.42||Estonia – 3:55.94|