What Does a ‘Good Time’ Look Like in the New Olympic Swimming Events?

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (which are scheduled for 2021) will feature 3 new Olympic medal events in swimming: the men’s 800 free, women’s 1500 free, and mixed 400 medley relay.

The former two races, long overdue, now bring full alignment to the men’s and women’s Olympic schedules. While there has been limited ‘enthusiasm’ for the addition of more distance rises from the swimming public, they’ve generally been supported for what they stand for, which is unifying the schedules.

The mixed medley, on the other hand, has been much more polarizing, with some (including this author) liking the concept and the strategy that goes with it, while others have labeled it a “circus act” event. It fits in the IOC’s general strategy of experimenting with mixed-gender events first at the Youth Olympic level, and now increasingly at the Olympic level.

For swim fans, these new races joining the Olympic lineup means a new level of fluency. While interest in swimming besides the Olympics is growing, the Olympics are still the grandest of games, and events that are Olympic events inevitably receive more focus and attention.

Among this new fluency is getting better at knowing what times are ‘good’ in these races. ‘Good’ can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, so we’ve just selected certain metrics from past major events and laid the times out below. This should start to form some picture of what times are ‘good’ on an Olympic scale.

Men’s 800 Free Women’s 1500 Free Mixed 400 Medley Relay
World Record 7:32.12 15:20.48 3:38.56
2019 Worlds – Gold 7:39.27 15:40.89 3:39.08
2019 Worlds – Bronze 7:42.08 15:51.00 3:40.68
2019 Worlds – Top 8 7:48.12 16:08.37 3:45.20
2018 Euros – Gold 7:42.96 15:51.61 3:40.18
2018 Asian Games – Gold 7:48.36 15:53.68 3:40.45
2017 Worlds – Gold 7:40.77 15:31.82 3:38.56
2017 Worlds – Bronze 7:42.44 15:53.86 3:41.25
2017 Worlds – Top 8 7:50.97 16:20.98 3:47.66

What Happens when Events Become Olympic Events?

There’s another piece to this puzzle, of course. Even if events are World Championship events, until they’re Olympic events, they’re never going to have the full weight of the swimming populace. Coaches will tailor training to these events a little more, and further, there will be a cream-rising-to-the-top effect: a female swimmer whose natural gift would have been for the 1500, for example, might fight that nature to try and improve speed to be competitive in the 800, and live with the impact of that upon her natural endurance. In other cases, a true top-tier swimmer might just bypass the non-Olympic event altogether. We never, for example, saw Michael Phelps racing the 50 fly at the World Championships.

Let’s look at two case studies in this, in the two most recent events added to the Olympic schedule: the 50 free in 1988, and the 800 free relay in 1996.

Men’s 50 free:

  • World Record going into the 1988 Olympic year: Tom Jager, 22.32
  • World Record set at the Olympics: Matt Biondi, 22.14
  • World Record after 1992 Olympics: Tom Jager, 21.81 (1990)

Tom Jager won the World Championship in the 50 free in 1986 with a time of 22.49. By 1990, after inclusion in the Olympic schedule, he had taken that record all the way to 21.81, a drop of .68 seconds.

That’s over a 3% time drop in 4 years.

That wasn’t an outlier either: it took a time of 23.03 to final at the 1986 World Championships, a 23.04 at the 1988 Olympic Games, and a 22.72 at the 1992 Olympic Games. That’s a 1.3% drop from 1988 to 1992 in the time required to final.

By comparison, in the men’s 100 free, the closest surrogate on the Olympic schedule, the time to final between 1988 and 1992 moved from 50.45 to 50.05 – an improvement rate of about half as much as the 50 free.

Women’s 50 free

  • World Record going into the 1988 Olympic year: Tamara Costache, 25.28
  • World Record set at the Olympics: Yang Wenyi, 24.98
  • World Record after 1992 Olympics: Yang Weniy, 24.79 (1992)

The World Record drop was less pronounced in the first four years here, falling by 1.9% from 1988 through 1992.

The finaling time from 1988 to 1992 dropped from 26.12 to 25.84. That is a less pronounced change from the men of 1.0%, though there are some heavy doping implications in this race that could skew that data. The women’s 100 free still dropped by less.

Women’s 800 Free Relay:

This one is an outlier among the three races. When the 1996 Olympic Games happened, the East German women of 1987 had the World Record at 7:55.47. That record wouldn’t be broken again until 2004, but again, dubious data because of the doping implications of the East German women. Relay records of any scale rarely last as long as that one did, and for that matter, while the 800 free relay was a new Olympic event, the 200 free that made up its parts wasn’t.

I suspect we’ll see this again with the latest round of new events. The mixed 400 medley relay records and depth probably won’t drop as quickly between the Tokyo and Paris Olympics, because all of those swimmers were already going to be on their Olympic teams for swimming those exact races.

The truth is that we won’t likely see a dramatic Olympic impact on World Records in any of these races. That men’s 800 swim by Zhang Lin, which was easily the highlight of his career, has felt like an outlier for years even among the outlier that is the concept of a ‘World Record.’ The same is true for Katie Ledecky, who is already so far ahead of any female distance swimmer in history that it already feels like it will be a generation or two before we see someone seriously attack her records.

So the key will be in depth – what times it takes to earn a medal, or an A-final swim at a major meet. That’s where we’re most likely to see the impact of these events at the Olympic level, at least immediately.

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Ross
1 year ago

Typo in the 2nd paragraph, 2nd sentence: addition of more distance *rices*

Barry
1 year ago

I’m not sure the conclusion follows, Braden. All three of these events debuted at the 1986 Worlds – the 1988 Olympics would’ve been like the 3rd major international with the 50 (after 1987 Pan Pacs). So it’s not super surprising that like… the 50 records were broken 11 times from 1986 through 1988, just because of the new-ness. I’d give more weight to the novelty than to the Olympics.

The men’s 800 and women’s 1500 have been around for a long time, I think just the fact that they’ve been contested for so long means we’re unlikely to major Olympic impact.

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  Barry
1 year ago

The women’s 1500 meter freestyle has been contested at the FINA World Aquatics Championships since 2001. The mixed relays were introduced at the FINA World Aquatics Championships in 2015.

leisurely1:29
Reply to  Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
1 year ago

Another insightful comment from our favorite relay namesake commenter.

Khachaturian
1 year ago

Glad to finally see distance swimming getting some love.

Swimmer
1 year ago

If anyone somehow gets 8 gold medals and one is from the mixed relay they’re still 2nd best

Ragnar
Reply to  Swimmer
1 year ago

No one will ever win 5 individuals again, even IF they live in a country with a shot at 3-4 relay golds. Calebs max would be 7 golds, Katie COULD win 4 individuals but wouldn’t a top 2 100 freer in a million years, no way in mixed relay . The Phelps effect is real, the level of athletes choosing swimming will only increase now that it’s been “cool” for the last two decades. Will be interesting if/when the 50 strokes are included one day, unlikely given the max team limits but who knows. I for one would support a final day SCM 100 IM, 2 slots from each country from the current rosters, in a accelerated prelims/final session. Have… Read more »

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  Ragnar
1 year ago

At the age of 24, a 200 FR/1500 FR double/double (heats/final) would be the very definition of suicidal even for Katie Ledecky. Besides, a bird in the hand (1500 FR) is worth two in the bush. The evening heats of the women’s 1500 meter freestyle is scheduled on the same day of the morning final of the women’s 400 meter freestyle.

Blackflag82
Reply to  Ragnar
1 year ago

The claim that no one will ever win 5 individuals again seems pretty unlikely to me. To me part of what is so amazing about Phelps’ 5 wins isn’t just the wins, but that he could have had a legit shot in either backstroke or the 400 free as well. The guy was gold medal capable in at least 8 events at the same time (We used Spitz as the benchmark, but in reality, Phelps was so much more versatile and dominant than Spitz all around). I say that to illustrate that it wouldn’t take another Phelps to hit 5 wins, and never mind on the women’s side. It might be a stretch, but there is potential for someone like… Read more »

Hmmmm
1 year ago

Ignoring the error, that 800 free record might be the most unbeatable of any of the super suit records. Only one person has been within 6 seconds, and that was Ous Mellouli in the same race (7:35). Thorpe was 7:39, Hackett and Sun were both 7:38. I bet someone breaks 1:42 in the 200 before someone gets the 800 record.

PVSFree
Reply to  Hmmmm
1 year ago

Women’s 200 fly is in with a shout, a 2:01 is still insane

torchbearer
Reply to  PVSFree
1 year ago

Dont think that will be broken i my lifetime (but I am old)!

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  PVSFree
1 year ago

Only two super suit world records remain on the books for the women’s side of the ledger:

200 meter freestyle
200 meter butterfly

At least the women’s 200 meter freestyle is not as insane as the women’s 200 meter butterfly.

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  PVSFree
1 year ago

The fastest textile time in the women’s 200 meter butterfly is 2:04.06. The time of 2:01.81 in the women’s 200 meter butterfly is insane.

Troyy
Reply to  PVSFree
1 year ago

Makes you wonder if these 2 records had a little bit more than just a supersuit going on.

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
Reply to  Troyy
1 year ago

A Chinese swimmer with a time recorded on Chinese soil.

USA
Reply to  Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
1 year ago

Not to mention it was done in a LZR, not an X-Glide

Joe
Reply to  Hmmmm
1 year ago

Back to back 3:46s is mental.

3:46.06 is good enough to make every World 400 free final since 2009!

SAMUEL HUNTINGTON
1 year ago

Watching a very fit Paltrinieri swim the 800 last week and still be eight seconds off the WR…that time may be more ridiculous than the 200 WR.

AndySUP
1 year ago

Katie Ledecky’s impact on women’s distance swimming is so much deeper and more profound than the inclusion of the 1500 into the Olympics. Her impact goes way beyond her record as we can see from all the women’s distance events Olympic and not. That will challenge any attempt at quantifying this impact in a way that will be very tough to filter out. I think that is agreeing with the content of the article but counter to the last sentence.

Amunnn
1 year ago

Heads up – tiny typo with the men’s 800m WR 7:32.12. Really interesting article!

Samesame
Reply to  Amunnn
1 year ago

Yeah I think it was the SCM record .

Samesame
Reply to  Samesame
1 year ago

It’s now fixed 😁

PVSFree
Reply to  Amunnn
1 year ago

I was gonna say, I thought I would’ve remember someone going back to back 3:40’s

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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