The Pan Pacific Championships left a funny taste in my mouth.
Not because they weren’t well-run, as the folks in Irvine did a fabulous job of putting on a great meet for the fans and athletes.
And not because there wasn’t fast swimming, as there were 21 world-best times swum in this meet.
The issue I had with the meet, and that has been on everyone’s minds, is with the procedures to determine who finals, and who doesn’t.
If you’ve been following our Pan-Pac coverage, or anyone else’s for that matter, you may have noticed a few superstars swimming B-finals: like Soni in the 50 breaststroke, Peirsol in the 200 back, and Phelps in the 400 IM (although he ended up scratching this final). This wasn’t because they weren’t in the top 8 in the morning swims, but it was because of a Pan-Pacific rule that limits A-finalists to 2 per country.
While each National Federation is allowed to enter as many swimmers (within roster limits) as they want in each event, each country is allowed only 3 finalists , with no more than 2 of them competing in the medal final.
I understand the reasoning behind this. The meet would lose international appeal and interest if, for example, the women’s 400 free A-final was made up of 4 Americans, 3 Australians, and a New Zealander. To this end, it certainly has achieved its goal of giving more excitement to the meet and making the preliminary heats acount for something.
But on the other hand, it gives swimmers from certain nations an advantage over others. In the men’s 100 free, Brazilian swimmer Cesar Cielo only needed the 11th fastest preliminary time (which he got, just barely) to sneak into the A-final, and only had to beat a 49.20 to make it in. American Jason Lezak, however, had to beat Garret Weber-Gale’s 48.98 (the 7th fastest AM time). Cielo ended up in an outside lane in the final, but without having had to exert himself as much in prelims to beat his own countrymates, he was able to comeback and barely nip Lezak for the bronze medal.
A similar situation happened in the women’s 200 IM, only this time it was one of the bigger nations who was the beneficiary. Australia only entered 2 women in this event. For Emily Seebohm, who had a loaded schedule on the week, this meant that she only had to place in the 6-best non-American times to swim in the A-finals. with the Americans swimming the four fastest times in prelims, that meant Seebohm only needed a top 10 finish to have a chance at a medal. Americans Ariana Kukors and Caitlin Leverenz had to really push the prelims, however, as they needed top-2 finishes to qualify for the A-final. In the evening session, a more rested Seebohm beat both Kukors and Leverenz to take the gold medal.
I am all for trying to spread the wealth around, but to create such a huge imbalance from one nation to the other allows for gamesmanship, which while legal by letter of the law, is not necessarily in the best sporting interest.
Furthermore, this creates a big issue when countries are trying to choose their Pan Pac teams. A swimmer like Annie Chandler, who had a legitimate chance at making the USA World Championship team in this event, didn’t even get a shot at a second swim (she was the 4th best American), despite having a faster prelims time than 2 A-finalists.
There’s a few ways to fix this problem while still allowing more diversity in the finals. The ideal solution is probably some combination of the three.
1. Increase the number of allowable A-finalists from each nation to 3. This would still guarantee that at least 3 countries were represented in the medal final, but would give a third swimmer from the powerhouse nations a shot at medaling. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to allow 3 swimmers from each country to shoot for a medal without having one country completely overwhelm all of the others.
2. Increase the number of allowable B-finalists from each nation. While the B-finals produce some fast times, the real goal for most swimmers, and the real excitement, is in the A-final. Placing dead last in the A-final still finishes a swimmer better than winning the B-final by 5 seconds. So why not expand the allowable number of B-finalists from each nation to 2 or more? Giving a nation like the United States or Australia 4 o r 5 chances at a second swim gives them enough leeway to find their top 2 swimmers for qualification procedures, but also allows weaker countries a chance to compete and final.
3. Reduce the circle-seeding in the prelims to 2 heats- At the meet, being in the first circle seeded heat was a DISTINCT disadvantage, especially when gold-medal favorites had to place in the top 2 of their country to qualify for finals. Rebecca Soni in the 50 breaststroke won her preliminary heat by about 2 body lengths. But she was in the first circle-seeded heat, so she had no idea what she needed to swim, and ended up not having anybody to push her. If the Pan Pacs are going to require such high standards for finaling, where swimmers from certain countries essentially have to swim for a medal in the prelims, then they should at least give the top swimmers a better shot at earning those spots head-to-head. The reason for an A-final, after all, is to ensure that all swimmers competing for medals race for them mano-a-mano. I know 3-heats of circle seeding are standard. But this meet is relatively shallow (compared to an Olympic or World Championships), and so we have to ask if a 24-swimmer circle seed is really required.
I think that FINA and Pan Pacific organizers need to put a little more thought into this rule before the next Championship, and make sure that they’ve really considered all factors, including what is best for the fans and the athletes involved.