Men’s Swimming’s Balance of Power – For Now

Men’s Swimming’s Balance of Power – At Least For Now – Has Shifted to Europe

The term, Balance of Power, is a frequently used phrase to describe the shifting currents of the sporting world. Some seasons, the Balance of Power in the NBA will lean towards the Eastern Conference, its collection of franchises deeper than what is featured in the West. This year’s Balance of Power in the NFL is said to tilt towards the AFC.

Regardless of sport, team and individual, change is constant, and it is this ever-evolving landscape that plays a significant role in the entertainment of fans and analysis of what is to come—such as an Olympic Games. With Paris less than two years from hosting the 2024 Games, the sport of swimming has witnessed a change in its Balance of Power.

Let’s not mistake this column as a Chicken Little assessment of the American scene. Given that the United States men captured 20 medals during this past summer’s World Championships, Team USA’s status is fine – especially in terms of depth. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a challenge to the preeminent aquatic superpower, and that there isn’t movement of the pool’s tectonic plates. The fact is, Europe has surged and is rocking the sport’s Richter Scale behind a few powerful, earth-shaking talents.

The medal table from the FINA World Champs in Budapest provides partial evidence of the European rise that is underway. Of the 20 men’s events contested, 11 gold medals were awarded to athletes from the continent to the East of the Atlantic. More, Europeans accounted for 27 of the 60 medals available. Both tallies, it is worth noting, did not include contributions from Russia, which boasts major strength, but was banned from Worlds due to the nation’s invasion of Ukraine.

The remaining evidence of Europe’s leap to top-dog position can be found in the trio of athletes that combined for six solo titles at the World Championships. This triumvirate has the potential to rule for years to come, such is the skill possessed by Romania’s Davide PopovicFrance’s Leon Marchand and Hungary’s Kristof Milak.

In the October issue of Swimming World, the theme of youth is prevalent. Marchand is the focus of a separate feature article and is included—with Popovici, among several others—in a piece that examines the emergence of the next era in the sport. While Milak has been around for several years, he’s still just 22, with many optimal years ahead.

As the Balance of Power shifted to Europe, there is no argument that Popovici was the headliner of the shift. At the European Championships, the Romanian (who just turned 18 last month) blasted a world record of 46.86 in the 100 meter freestyle and registered a mark of 1:42.97 in the 200 freestyle, the No. 3 mark in history and the fastest in textiles. For the summer, he notched 16 sub-48 performances in the 100 freestyle, an absurd number that speaks to his ability to maintain consistent top-end speed.

In the case of Marchand, the Arizona State sophomore swept both medley events at Worlds and grabbed silver behind Milak in the 200 butterfly. His outing in the 400 IM scared Michael Phelps’ 14-year-old world record, a standard long believed to be untouchable. And in Milak, his 100 butterfly/200 butterfly double was complemented over the course of the summer by elite swims in the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle, those efforts proof of his growing prowess.

The stock of the European men is soaring, and Popovici, Marchand and Milak are the power brokers of the movement. Yet, they have plenty of support in strengthening the continent’s grip on the sport. Heck, we haven’t even mentioned Italian Thomas Ceccon, who set a world record of 51.60 in the 100 backstroke at Worlds. Factor in the likes of Brits Duncan Scott and Tom Dean and Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieriand Europe is enjoying a stacked window.

In two years, will the Balance of Power resemble its current state? Maybe. The beauty of sports is how it can rapidly change. For now, though, Europe is in an impressive position.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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