Some of the biggest, most exciting East-West athletic confrontations in recent years have come in swimming, and a couple of 1976 Olympic medal winners expect more of the same in the period leading up to and including the 1984 games at Los Angeles.
John Naber, who won four golds at Montreal, and Bill Forrester, a bronze medalist, are no longer part of the competitive scene themselves. Both keep a close eye on their sport, however, and they like what they see in terms of US preparation.
Based on performances leading up to the 1980 Olympics, they say, the US men and women would have figured to win the lion's share of medals if this country had competed at Moscow. In their absence, of course, it was the Soviet men and the East German women who dominated the show. But now, looking ahead to the 1982 world championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and to Los Angeles two years later, Naber and Forrester believe that the American men are likely to reassert their traditional supremacy while the women have a good chance to reclaim the No. 1 spot in their perennial duel with East Germany.
The intriguing element in the men's competition is the arrival of the Soviets in a sport in which they had previously never had much success. There's no question that they were tremendously improved and primed for a big effort in Moscow, but there's also no way of telling how much good that improvement would have done in terms of medals if the Americans had been there. Thus there is even more interest than usual in between-Olympics international competition.
"The first real confrontation will come at the world championships next year, " said Forrester. "It could be like the famous 1978 confrontation between the American and East German women."
That was the meet a which the Americans regained the upper hand over their arch rivals, who had won all but one of the gold medals at Montreal two years earlier. And because of these and subsequent results, Tracy Caulkins, Cynthia Woodhead, Mary Meagher, & Co. had been expected to win most of the medals at Moscow until the boycott ended all such thoughts.
In the days when the majority of American female swimmers retired from competition while still in their teens, that might have been the end for this particular group. But times are different now, with far more academic and other opportunities for women athletes, and as a result, most of the top ones are expected to stick around another four years this time.
"I think the American women will come out on top, with East Germany second, the USSR a pretty strong third, and Australia making a good showing," Forrester said in projecting toward the big upcoming encounters of the next few years.
Naber, a bit more cautious, said:
"Everything can flip-flop in just a couple of years, but right now it seems that the USA is ahead, with East Germany the main competition."
When it came to the men, however, it was Naber who waxed the most optimistic.
"I would expect our men to win 10 of the 15 gold medals at Los Angeles," Naber said. "And the other five will probably go to swimmers who have trained in the United States." He pointed out that most recent winners have done this, either as college students or as members of national teams such as the USSR's which have come to this country to polish their skills.
Naber noted, though, that no matter how dominant the American swimmers may be in Los Angeles, the new rules which will be in effect then will make it just about impossible to duplicate the sort of overall medal harvest they have sometimes reaped in the past. This is because a nation can now enter only two swimmers in each event, instead of the three it was allowed previously -- a change which obviously works against the United States, which despite its tremendous depth can now no longer get any more of the 1-2-3 sweeps it frequently came up with in the past.
Forrester, while stopping short of making predictions, indicated that he, too , thought the US swimmers could turn back the Soviet challenge.
"The Russians have made great strides in the past three years," he said. "They've done a lot of research and a lot of training. They may even be ahead of us at this point in the scientific end. But the attitude of the athlete is a big factor, too, and our attitude is definitely superior. We do our sports for fun; we love the sport to begin with, and that's why we're there The Russians are chosen, and then taught to like it. Some of them may actually learn to love the sport, too, but I doubt that as high a percentage of their athletes feel this way. That's one of the advantages we have with our free system."
One of the disadvantages in the past, of course, was the haphazard financing of US amateur sports programs, but that is changing now with the increasing involvement of major corporations to help with the funding -- and both Naber and Forrester are examples of this as they travel around the country talking up their sport on behalf of commercial organizations.
John, who is a member of the board of directors of the Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee, points to the $4 million swimming pool being built for the games by the McDonald's Corporation. Bill, meanwhile, notes that the national sponsorship of the US swimming program by the Phillips Petroleum Company enables many athletes who otherwise would not be able to afford expenses to compete in meets throughout the country.
With this sort of corporate involvement, they say, US amateur athletics in general, and swimming in particular, should continue on the upswing -- and the evidence should be there for all to see in the big meets of the next few years.