After just one day of the 2016 French Elite Nationals, there is already plenty of griping about the Olympic times set by French swimming. Setting qualifying standards for any competition is one of the most complex endeavors a National Federation can undertake. What seems simple on the surface (times are times) is so much more than that- every qualifying time has a life of its own, a story, a psychology factor.
Take for example Lara Grangeon’s French record breaking 400 IM from yesterday. Despite chopping off a second and putting up a time that would have qualified for the final at last summer’s World Championship, Grangeon will not qualify. There is a good justification for the tough standard, and Grangeon stands a good chance to be selected on a subjective basis. Consider for a moment what kind of psychological impact it will have if she doesn’t.
What are up and coming French talents supposed to think if Grangeon stays home? Will they believe the Olympic dream is possible for them? Negativity can easily roll downhill. Coaches, doing their jobs and trying to get their athletes every opportunity possible, can often compound this negativity.
It is up to federations to hold the line despite this risk. There are only two countries (perhaps three) that can rely on their internal competition to produce competitive pairs in all events. Countries like France operate in a strange space between the world powers in swimming and the little fish. They have too much history to send athletes to the Olympics just for the experience.
In fact, taken in that light it’s quite generous of French swimming to set the qualifying bar in the 400 IM at 4:35. This is still well short of what it will take to medal in Rio (4:31 or so seems likely), and medals are what they are seeking.
The federation must contend with the fact that there is a huge chasm between the competitiveness between French Elite Nationals and the Olympics. Grangeon was able to swim six seconds slower than her record time in prelims and still qualify first. Of course this is the right move in the situation of this specific meet. But in the grander context, it’s hardly good preparation for the Olympics to loaf your way through a preliminary swim.
France has specifically made preliminary and semi-final swimming a factor in their criteria to combat this. While there were similar complaints about tough qualifying standards four years ago, France ended up with a very effective small squad that won four gold medals. That total was third only behind China and America. The French squad was tough enough as a result to avenge their Beijing 4×100 free relay defeat to the Americans.
So as the weekend goes on, don’t cry for the French swimmers who are seemingly chasing impossible times. If they fail, they were unlikely to have an impact in Rio, and if they succeed they will be better prepared for the challenge ahead.