Raising Flags

by Casey Barrett

The medals for top swimming nations: Gold – USA / Silver – China / Bronze – France… Others in the mix: South Africa impresses, Aussies underachieve… 

The Games ended in the pool as they always do – with Team USA taking the men’s medley relay. How could they not? The Olympic champions in the 100 fly, back, and free are all Americans. Their weak link only won bronze in the 100 breast. Doesn’t get much more overwhelming than that. Team USA’s women were almost equally loaded: Gold medalists in the 100 fly and back, silver in 100 breast, and Olympic champ in the 200 free on the end.

It was quite a showing for the Americans. Always is, but this one stuck out for the sheer diversity on the medal stand. Five different women won individual events, in all four strokes. Five different men won individual gold too; the guys missed the top of the podium only in breaststroke. Needless to say, the preeminent swimming nation remains Team USA.

But despite the continued dominance, the rest of the world continues to close in. No one can be surprised that China is down breathing now the Yanks’ throats. They have the greatest medley swimmer on earth in Ye Shiwen and the greatest distance freestyler ever, in Sun Yang. (Disagree with the ever? Hard to argue after that 14.31.0 (?!), but maybe he needs to sweep the 400 and 1500 again in Rio first…) Their women’s butterfly corps aren’t looking too bad either, with the Olympic champ in the 200 fly and the silver medalist in the 100.

Then there’s France, the most overachieving nation in London. They must have surprised even themselves. With apologies to Nathan Adrian and the absent Aussies, France must now be considered the top sprint nation on earth. They took the 50, with a shocker from Laurent Manaudou. Yannick Agnel owned the 200. And of course they snatched the men’s 4 x 100 free in that table-turner from Beijing. They also have the Olympic champ in the women’s 400 free. Camille Muffat can scratch it out in a steel cage cat fight with Allison Schmitt for the title of best middle distance freestyler in the world.

Much as I loathe the nationalistic medal counting, these numbers are hard to get around. Team USA won 30 medals in London, triple the total of China. France was 5th in the national medal counts, however, their gold medal totals easily elevate them to the bronze spot on the country podium. Japan was actually second in the swimming medal count, with 11. However, none of those were gold and eight were bronze. No disrespect to a great showing by the Japanese, but reaching the top of the podium has to be worth three or four of the “minor” medals.

Tied for third with China with ten overall medal were the Aussies. A decent haul, but let’s be honest – they didn’t show up in London. They won exactly zero individual gold medals. The last time that happened was at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when the Americans won all but one of the men’s events and the doped East Germans won all but won of the women’s races. That’s some dubious history for the Aussies, who entered London with a loaded crew of contenders.

The Aussies did take the women’s 4 x 100 free really on day one, and they had an excellent showing from Alicia Coutts who swam away with five medals, including two of the individual variety – a bronze in the 100 fly and a silver in the 200 IM. But mostly it was a mess for the Aussies. Their Missile, James Magnussen, failed to launch. If he’d swum to his Aussie Trials best in the 100 free, he would have flat out smoked Nathan Adrian. And his no-show lead off leg in the men’s 4 x 100 free set up a shocking no-medal finish in an event they were overwhelmingly favored to win.

Their Commonwealth brethren, South Africa, did show up. The sent out two stunning men’s champions: Cameron van der Burgh in the 100 breast, and in the race of the meet, Chad Le Clos in the men’s 200 fly. (Note: What is it about the 200 fly that makes it the event of legendary upsets? There was Australia’s Jon Sieben taking down Germany’s Michael Gross in 1984. There was Misty Hyman taking Susie O’Neill in Sydney. And now there is Le Clos over Phelps in London. All three must rank among the all-time Olympic swimming upsets. In fact, they may be the top three ever, in any event…)

Making it all the more special for South Africa, both van der Burgh and Le Clos are homegrown talents. Neither left for American universities as soon as they got good, as so many do. van der Burgh is currently studying at the University of Pretoria, near Johannesburg, while Le Clos lives and trains in his hometown of Durban. The pair’s success has ignited calls for increased funding for South Africa’s Olympic swimming hopefuls. As it stands now, only those considered a “serious medal contender” can receive funding. Both van der Burgh and Le Clos qualified and received funding in their Olympic pursuits, however, it’s hoped their success will spur a new tier to be created – to help fund those on the rise.

Their homegrown success is also going to reverberate overseas, in other countries where it’s still touchy when top talents leave home and head for scholarships in the States… Canada’s two medalists in London – Brett Hayden with bronze in the 100 free and Ryan Cochrane with silver in the 1500 – are both homegrown too, but loads of other top Canadians have found their way to American universities. Same goes for plenty of Aussies, Germans, Brazilians, and South Africans, for that matter. Their previous world-beating champions, Penny Heyns and Ryk Neething, both attended college in the States. But who can blame swimmers who leave and head for the U.S.?

As witnessed in London, it remains the mecca of swimming.