The IOC announced today the additions of three new events to be added to the Olympic program, effective for the 2020 Tokyo Games. Finally, the men and women will be swimming the exact same distance races– the Olympics will look like the World Championships from a distance standpoint. We’ll actually get to see Katie Ledecky rip apart the field in the 1500, while distance swimmers worldwide will be able to get another shot at a podium finish.
Distance swimmers typically focus solely on freestyle, thus limiting the best milers from venturing into other events. A world-class sprinter, or somebody like Katinka Hosszu, would have more feasible options for secondary swims than a distance swimmer, who otherwise might only have the 800 or 1500 on their Olympic program. In addition to the relay potential for sprinters, since distance swimmers rarely have the range to make the 4×200 relay, another distance event gives those slow-twitch specialists one more option.
Are more distance events going to sell more tickets? Probably not in a significant way. There might be a bump from Ledecky swimming another event, but the 800 free (and especially the 1500) is notoriously known for being a commercial break race. And while TV spectators might hate those cuts in the middle of a distance race, empty stands are evidence that people aren’t showing up in throngs for these races in person.
Meanwhile, the mixed medley relay has its own set of pros and cons. The pros are simple: more racing (yes!), more relays (yes!!), more sprints (yes!!!). Comebacks are fun to watch, like the mile at the 2016 Men’s NCAA Championships, but comebacks over the course of a single sprint leg (a la Michael Chadwick in Windsor) are even more exciting. On the other end of that, the 2015 Worlds showed that the event wasn’t taken very seriously, and some top swimmers were notably absent from that relay. That could, of course, change as it becomes a more common events at such big championships.
Additionally, the back and forth exchanges in a 400 mixed medley relay are pretty exhilarating to watch. Depending on the order and sex of the swimmers on a given relay, a team that started off in 8th can jump to 3rd, then to 6th, then to 1st in just a few minutes, and vice versa. And, assuming the world’s best show up for the relay, we’ll get to see more big swims, like an additional 100 breast from Adam Peaty.
Still, the mixed medley relay is a new idea for the international stage, and one that many swimming stars may not mesh with. These new additions will add more time to prelims and finals sessions, and some stars may opt out of them to focus on their already-set races.
The leveling out of distance events is certainly a positive step towards gender equality in the sport. Let’s not forget that men were allowed to swim the 1500 free in 1904– 64 years before women could race the 800. However, we’ll have to wait and see how the new events settle into the international swimming scene as new Olympic medal opportunities.