It can be pretty depressing being a swimming fan sometimes. While it was great to see Adam Peaty make the BBC Sports Personality of the Year list, it’s a sad reflection on the state of British Swimming that he came last by some considerable margin with less than 10,000 votes or 1.6 per cent of the voters.
That’s behind representatives for sports that are surely much more niche than swimming, including dressage, skiing, gymnastics and skeleton bobsleigh.
Obviously a large part of the reason for this is his youth and I suspect completely anonymity to the great British public – despite his world record breaking achievements in the breaststroke. Indeed the only swimmer who is known to the general public is Rebecca Adlington and she retired after the London 2012 Olympics at the tender age of 23.
Despite a few promising young swimmers, it seems that British Swimming remains in the doldrums – partly because of a cut in funding after the disastrous London 2012 Olympics. But also because it lacks the household names of my youth: David Wilkie, Duncan Goodhew, Sharron Davies being among them. To me it speaks volumes that the second most famous swimmer of the last 20 years is actually Mark Foster – and probably most people know him as a dancer first and foremost (or maybe the guy who advertises vitamins).
Boys in particular are dropping out of swimming in large numbers to pursue other supposedly more glamorous sports such as football (even though the chances of making a career out of football are probably just as slim as making a career out of swimming) while girls often leave, without wishing to generalise too much, because of concerns about body image. I have even heard parents express concern to me that their daughter’s shoulders are too large and ‘unfeminine’.
So how do we tackle these problems? I think it comes down simply to SUCCESS. In the US, swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are household names because they are successful. This has a trickle down effect (pardon the pun) on age group swimmers as people want to be like them, although hopefully without driving under the influence as Phelps recently did.
In the same way as cycling was barely on the sporting map until the success of Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton, swimming desperately needs athletes to break through at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and achieve gold medal success as Adlington was able to do following the Beijing Olympics.
Only then can we hope to put British Swimming back on the world stage and stand a chance in a personality contest like the BBC’s last night.