The 100m freestyle is considered to be the prestige event of the pool. Particularly when your country wins it.
If you want to know what matters in swimming, ask a swimmer. Inside Sport was curious about this notion that the 100m freestyle was seen as the blue ribbon (please, no “riband”) of swimming, the one event out of the multitude of strokes and distance with special extra status.
Like its equivalent on the track, it has a visceral quality – race you to the end of the pool and back. It certainly has its place in our nation's lore. The damned technique, Australian crawl, was named after the country. It was Dawn Fraser’s event.
So we asked a swimmer: is the 100m free considered extra special. Giaan Rooney, a relay gold medallist from 2004, a former freestyle world champion (in the 200m, but still) and Seven’s poolside eye in Rio, had given much thought to the subject. “We adopt a blue-ribbon event depending on where our success lies,” she said.
Rooney laughed, before adopting a serious, voice-of-authority tone: “The men’s 1500m has been Australia’s blue-ribbon event” recalling the days when the nation would tolerate watching swimmers thrash around for a good quarter-hour, because it ended in Perkins of Hackett on top of a podium. I once had a mate – an Englishman, naturally – who said that Aussies excelled at the 1500m swimming because no other nation in the world could tolerate training in the water for that long.
For the sake of the nation’s shortened attention span, it’s all well and good that Aussie freestylers are again at the pointy end of the 100m final. As it was abundantly noted, Kyle Chalmers’ surprise victory ended a 38-year gold-less run on the men’s side, dating back to Michael Wenden in Mexico City. In more recent Games, it saw the likes of Eamon Sullivan and James Magnussen fall agonisingly short. “I think because the 100m freestyle has eluded us for a while, particularly in the men’s department, it is a wanted commodity,” Rooney says.
With the Campbell sisters, Cate and Bronte, doubling down Australia’s 100m chances on the women’s side, there’s a chance another streak comes to an end – the last time both 100m champs were Aussies was in 1960, when Fraser and John Devitt claimed the golds. Rooney adds: “How extraordinary that an event that has eluded us for quite a while, we could have a men’s and a women’s 100m champion at these Games.”