Publication: Speeding up or Slowing down? Analysis of Race Results in elite swimming from 2011-2019 to predict future olympic games performances

Impact statement:  Within elite-level swimming, the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of the sport. Happening once every four years, the Olympic Games are proceeded and succeeded by a FINA World Long Course Championships. Therefore, within any given quadrennial, an athlete has an opportunity to compete in two FINA World Long Course Championships and one Olympic Games, provided they qualify for the respective competitions. In 2009, FINA (the governing body for swimming) banned full body ‘super suits’ (i.e., polyurethane suits), due to the unprecedented amount of World Records that were set in an 18 month period between 2008 and 2009. For context, a total of 147 World Records were broken in 2009 alone, with 43 of those coming at the 2009 FINA World Long Course Championships in Rome.

However, since the banning of those suits, very little is known about the trends in world swimming. Anecdotally, from coaches and practitioners working within high performance programmes, it is suggested that some events have progressed (e.g., Men’s 100m breaststroke), while others have either stagnated (e.g., Men’s 200m freestyle) or regressed (e.g., Women’s 200m butterfly). Therefore, the primary aim of this piece of work was to examine the trends in elite swimming between 2011 and 2019, using performances from either the FINA World Long Course Championships or Olympic Games, that occurred during that period (this resulted in performances from five FINA World Long Course Championships (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019) and two Olympic Games (2012 and 2016)), across three distinct performance categories:

  • Medalist (those ranked 1st-3rd)
  • Finalist, but not medalist (those ranked 4th-8th)
  • Semi-finalist, but not finalist (those ranked 9th-16th)

In addition, predictions were made for the above performance categories for all Olympic events for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

For trends, 13 out of 14 Men’s and Women’s event have seen at least one significant change in at least one performance category, across that period, with only two events (Men’s 400m individual medley and Women’s 1500m freestyle) seeing no change in any performance category. The Women’s 200m butterfly is also the only event where all three performance categories have got slower over the last near decade. For the Paris 2024 predictions, times are predicted to fall into one of five broad categories:

  • Improving – all performance categories are predicted to get faster (e.g., Women’s 100m butterfly)
  • Declining – all performance categories are predicted to get slower (e.g., Women’s 200m butterfly)
  • Converging – one or more performance category is predicted to get faster, with the remining categories either staying the same, or getting slower (e.g., Men’s 200m freestyle)
  • Diverging – performance categories are predicted to go in opposite directions (i.e., the gap between them will increase) (e.g., Women’s 400m freestyle)
  • Stable – all performance categories are predicted to stay the same (e.g., Men’s 400m IM)

The trends and predictions included in this piece of work may offer new insights for high performance programmes to specifically target events, and allocate appropriate resources to athletes and programmes, to increase the likelihood of achieving international representation, and ultimately Olympic success.

Crowley, E., Ng, K., Mujika, I. and Powell, C., 2021. Speeding up or Slowing Down? Analysis of Race Results in Elite-level Swimming from 2011-2019 to Predict Future Olympic Games Performances. Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, pp.1-11.  DOI: 10.1080/1091367X.2021.1952592

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