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Swimming the 1500m: Why No Olympic Event for the Women?

Katie Ledecky. Photo credit: Clive Rose (Getty Images). From: http://www.businessinsider.com/katie-ledecky-is-the-most-dominant-swimmer-alive-2015-8
Katie Ledecky. Photo credit: Clive Rose (Getty Images). From: http://www.businessinsider.com/katie-ledecky-is-the-most-dominant-swimmer-alive-2015-8

On Monday at the World Championships, American swimmer Katy Ledecky beat her own 1500 m world record by .65 of a second, swimming 1500 metres in 15 minutes 27.71 seconds. She swam it in a heat not a final, and was herself shocked by the result. And an amazing result it is.

If it had been the Olympics and not the Worlds, Ledecky wouldn’t have been swimming that event. Though there is a men’s 1500 in the Olympics, the women’s Olympic “equivalent” is 800.

There is a long tradition in sports of women not being given the same competitive opportunities as men. And the Olympics have been no exception. There was no women’s marathon in the Olympics until 1984. Joan Benoit of the US won gold on home turf in LA that year. 1984 also saw the first women’s cycling events. Women’s hockey–1998. Women’s weightlifting–2000. Women’s boxing appeared for the first time in 2012.

We’re going to reject out of hand the arguments to the effect that women aren’t capable of these things. Clearly, given that the women swim 1500 in all sorts of other games, why shouldn’t they be able to do it in the Olympics?

I didn’t find much out there on this issue, but in this New York Times article from last August, Karen Crouse reported, “1500 metres seems out of reach for women in the Olympics.” Here’s what the article says:

Forty-six years after the 800 was added to the women’s Olympic program, swimming’s math is stuck in the 1960s: 800 meters + women = 1,500 + men.

The shame of shutting out the top female milers from the sport’s showcase meet has deepened since the London Olympics with the ascendant magic act of Katie Ledecky, who makes world records disappear.

Ledecky’s amazing talent is that she can lock into a pace and stay there. For a long time. For 800m, for 1500m.

Pianists could set their rhythm by her stroke, which is a metronomic 1.4 seconds per arm cycle.

Bruce Gemmell, who coaches Ledecky at Nation’s Capital Swim Club, said he could close his eyes and hear how well she was doing because of the cadence of her stroke.

“Once I get into a rhythm,” said Ledecky, who won the 800 at the London Games, “it’s pretty hard for me to stop holding that rhythm.”

Olympic champion Debbie Meyer, who won three gold medals in the 1968 Olympics said the 1500 metre was her real strength, but she never got to race it in the Olympics. When she inquired about why, she was told that a minimum number of countries had to race the event before they would include it. But more did the 800m than the 1500m.

Reflecting back on it, Meyer says:

“It really was all about the thinking then,” Meyer said, “which was, women were the weaker sex and because men were stronger people, they could last the distance.”

She added: “Definitely it gnaws at me a little bit more now than it did at the time I was competing. I wonder what the thinking is behind it now, why they don’t have it in.”

Anyway, it looks like it’s not going to happen any time soon, if ever:

Pushing the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle past members of FINA, the sport’s international governing body, and onto the Olympic program has become a Sisyphean battle. The path grew steeper with the addition in 2008 of open-water swimming events.

“We’ve been working on it for decades,” said Jon Urbanchek, who coached at Michigan for over two decades and served on many USA Swimming national team staffs. “It’s on the table, but it seems like FINA is trying to push it back.”

A 15-minute race is a tough sell in an era characterized by 140-character communications.

“The public interest is in shorter races, in the 50s of the strokes and mixed relays and that sort of thing,” Urbanchek said. “The 1,500 is kind of, for most people, boring unless you’re really into it.”

It’s not clear why the same event is “boring” when the women race it, not so much when the men do. And though the competitors wonder about it and might wish it to be different, they’re not arguing too vocally about it, it seems. Katie Ledecky says: “Whatever happens, I can’t control it. It’s not my thing to decide. I’ll just swim whatever’s in the Olympics.” She’s going to train for even shorter events, like the 200m, instead of worrying about a distance that’s not there for her.

That’s a pretty forgiving attitude towards what appears to be a decision steeped in old-fashioned assumptions about women’s capabilities.

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