The Greatest Swim Team of All Time

LOS ANGELES, Jul, 4, 2008 – There’s a lot of loose talk among coaches, sportswriters, fans and athletes in Eugene, Oregon and Omaha, Nebraska about how good the U.S. track & field and swimming teams are going to be at this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, China.

In fact, some are talking about these teams being the best ever – the greatest of all time – from the U.S., or perhaps anywhere else, to compete in the Games.

To be polite, BALDERDASH!

Let’s start with men’s swimming. It’s easy to be seduced by the individual greatness of Michael Phelps, possibly (probably?) on his way to eight gold medals: five in individual events and three on American relay teams. But Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Brendan Hansen and the rest of the boys will have to go a long way to measure up to the awesome 1976 team.

Consider that in 13 events on the men’s swimming program in Montreal, the Americans swept – gold, silver and bronze medals – in the 200 m freestyle, 200 m backstroke, 100 m butterfly and 200 m butterfly and went 1-2 in the 100 m freestyle, 400 m freestyle, 1500 m freestyle, 100 m backstroke and 400 m individual medley. That team won 12 of 13 events and set world records in 11 of them along the way to winning 25 of the 33 available individual medals (75.6%), plus both relays.

That team was so dominant, so stunningly better than everyone else that its performance is often cited as the reason that the worldwide governing body of swimming, FINA, decided to cut the number of entries allowed per country in the Olympic Games from three to two, so someone other than an American would win at least one medal in each event.

For the 2008 men’s team to equal the Montreal team’s feat – recognizing that only two Americans can enter each event – it would have to win not less than 20 individual medals and at least two relays, and set a minimum of 11 world records; that’s what the American team in Montreal actually won using the current two-entrants-per-nation rule. For the 2008 team, that’s an easier assignment than in Montreal since there are now 16 events instead of 13 as two individual events and one relay have been added since 1976. On a percentage basis, the Beijing team would have to win 92% of the available individual gold and silver medals (24 of 26) to surpass the ‘76 squad, which won 20 of the 22 available individual gold and silver medals.

There is no chance of that happening.

As proof, check out the 2007 World Aquatics Championships, held in Australia, where the Americans had a dominant meet, but won “only”15 out of 26 first and second-place medals in Olympic-program events, scored an impressive but comparatively paltry six individual world records and won two of three relays (only one in a world record).

That’s a good meet, but hardly in the same league with the unimaginably good 1976 team of freestylers Jim Montgomery, Bruce Furniss, Brian Goodell and Tim Shaw, backstrokers John Naber and Peter Rocca, breaststroker John Hencken, medley king Rod Strachan and butterfly specialists Matt Vogel, Joe Bottom and Mike Bruner.

They were, and will likely always be, the greatest swim team of all time.

As for the women, comparisons are much harder because the dominant East German teams of the 1970s and 1980s were “chemically augmented” as Olympic chronicler David Wallechinsky has so artfully put it. Even so, in the pool, the 1976 DDR squad of Kornelia Ender, Petra Thumer, Ulrike Richter and others won 11 of the 13 available gold medals and six of the 11 available silvers (15 of 22 in individual events plus both relays), plus one bronze.

That also won’t be topped, or even approached by Natalie Coughlan, Katie Hoff and friends, who won eight of 26 gold and silver medals in the 2007 World Championships in Olympic-program events plus one of three relays (the Australian women won seven individual gold or silver medals plus two relays).

Good, but not the “best ever.”

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