Swimmers hot over decision to scrap Olympic pool roof

Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2004

Erik Vendt plans to dive into the Olympic pool in Athens five months from now and swim harder than most people ever will for nearly a mile. He can only hope he makes it.

The challenge for one of America's top long-distance swimmers will include more than other competitors and the clock. Vendt will have to battle Athens' brutal summer sun, which often pushes temperatures to 100.

''You can definitely feel the sun beating on your back,'' Vendt said. ''When you're going at the level we're going, pounding your body lap after lap after lap, it's going to take a toll.''

In the most striking example yet of the chaos that surrounds the Athens Games, organizers threw in the towel on plans to install a roof over the main Olympic pool.

The decision was met with outrage in the swimming community, which now has to worry about coping with conditions that have become increasingly outdated in the modern era.

Who knows how many world records will fall now? Who knows if Michael Phelps' quest to win seven gold medals will melt away in the searing Athens heat? Who knows if it will be rainy? Or windy?

''One of these days, somebody will consider the athletes, or they're just going to decide not to come anymore,'' said Eddie Reese, coach of the U.S. men's team that will be in Athens.

Unless the Greeks do an about-face, there won't be a covering for the pool at these Olympics. There may be some changes in the schedule to avoid holding preliminaries in the hottest part of the day. And most finals are set for the evening, though the sun doesn't set until around 8 p.m.

Disgusted swimmers have begun preparing for the worst. In Australia, they're considering vests packed with ice to cope with the expected temperatures, which can reach triple digits in August. In Southern California, Vendt has changed his routine, making sure he does most of his training laps in full sun.

''The Olympic Games shouldn't be about who handles the heat better than others,'' said Gary Hall Jr., an eight-time medalist. ''It should be about who can swim from one end to the other the fastest.''

This is the first time since 1992 that an Olympic swimming competition will be staged in an uncovered arena. The last two world championships were held indoors after the 1998 event in Perth, Australia, was plagued by unseasonable warmth, the sort of temperatures that are commonplace in Athens at the peak of summer.

An indoor natatorium or at least a covered pool, like the one used in Atlanta for the 1996 Games is the surest way to provide optimum conditions. The kind of setting where world records fall in droves, where swimmers can concentrate on technique and not the surroundings.

Outside the pool, NBC is certainly unhappy with the whole mess. Network officials were counting on a roof even a temporary, plastic version to keep the sun from interfering with one of the Olympics' premier events. Without it, the glare coming off the water can cause havoc for the cameras.

At the moment, NBC is holdings its tongue, hoping the Greeks come up with some sort of workable compromise.

Matt Welsh, a three-time Olympic medalist from Australia, predicts slower times in the uncovered pool, which would mean fewer records. He also believes his discipline will be most affected by the conditions without a roof, it will be difficult for backstrokers to get their bearings and remain on course.

''I'd like for something to be there, even if it is just a piece of Hessian cloth, just to make sure I am going on a straight line,'' said Welsh, who is competing at the Australian Olympic trials in Sydney.

Another Aussie swimmer, Alice Mills, said she may do some backstroke training in an outdoor pool to prepare. She won a silver medal at last year's world championships in the 200-meter individual medley.

''I will have to get used to swimming with my eyes shut or something,'' she said.

Ian Crocker, world record holder in the butterfly, was flabbergasted when he heard that construction delays dragged on so long that time ran out for putting up a roof.

The previous contractor backed out on the project because of technical problems. With competition set to begin Aug. 14, officials finally decided it was better to have an open-air pool than risk canceling the entire competition because of ''Men At Work'' signs.

Crocker also is worried about the air quality in Athens, which is plagued by severe pollution problems.

''When a country is hosting a meet at that level, you'd think the hosts would provide a venue that would be the best for the athletes,'' Crocker said. ''I still hope there will be a push to get some sort of a roof on the building and also provide some ventilation.''

Actually, the American swimmers should be somewhat acclimated to the conditions before they get the Athens.

The national trials will be held in July in a temporary pool set up outside the Long Beach, Calif., convention center. That's right outside, with no roof covering the pool.

Initially, some swimmers were upset about the setting for the trials. Now, it doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

''Our swimmers will have experience in that kind of environment,'' said Everett Uchiyama, national team director for USA Swimming. ''The bottom line is that everyone will be competing under the same conditions, so it will still be a level playing field.''

Well, maybe more level for some than others. Take Roland Schoeman, a South African who has trained in temperatures as high as 115 degrees in his adopted home of Tuscon, Ariz.

Not a bad pedigree for these Olympics.

''Coming from 115-degree weather should certainly be advantageous,'' Schoeman said. ''We're going to have to sit around in the heat for who knows how long. It's going to be draining. It's going to be taxing.''

But that's probably the way it's going to be. Better learn to make the best of it.

''In some ways, I don't care,'' said Aaron Peirsol, a top U.S. contender in the backstroke. ''It's arbitrary, unless there's snow on the deck.''

Don't worry, Aaron. No chance of that.

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