One of the biggest questions looming over the 2011 World Swimming Championships, set to begin in Shanghai on Sunday, was resolved on Thursday when the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the world's fastest man in water, Cesar Cielo of Brazil, could defend his world titles in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles despite testing positive for the banned diuretic furosemide in May. (Though the immediate issue of eligibility has been put to rest, the controversy surrounding the CAS decision has surely just begun.)
Yet there will still be plenty of suspense driving the last major global swimming competition before the 2012 London Olympics. After the flurry of 43 world records set in the now-banned high-tech suits at the 2009 Worlds in Rome, will we see any marks fall in Shanghai now that textile is back in fashion? Can 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, who has struggled to regain his aquatic mojo after taking chunks of time off since the Beijing Games three years ago, re-establish his dominance, or will Ryan Lochte continue to make his case as the best swimmer in the world?
Here are six races to watch that will help answer those questions:
• Men's 200 freestyle, Tuesday, July 26
Even without former world-record holder Ian Thorpe, the Aussie superstar who came out of retirement too late to make the Worlds (look for him in London), this may be the most loaded field in the meet. There'll be Lochte, who won this event at the Pan Pacific Championships last August, as well as South Korea's Park Tae-Hwan, the silver medalist in Beijing, and China's teen phenom, Sun Yang, who has the fastest time in the world this year. Also in the mix will be Phelps, who won this event with a world record in Beijing, and Paul Biedermann, the unheralded German who beat Phelps and his record at the 2009 Worlds while wearing a now-illegal polyurethane suit. That prompted Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, to threaten to pull his swimmer from future international events if FINA didn't address the buoyancy suit issue. (FINA banned the suits in 2010.)
• Men's 200 butterfly, Wednesday, July 27
This spring, Phelps lost three straight races in his signature event, ending a 60-race winning streak that stretched back nine years. Two of those losses were to China's Wu Peng, who will enter this event with enormous confidence (how many people have beaten Phelps even once?) and a raucous home crowd behind him. But Phelps' best time for this year is more than a second faster than Wu's, and this is the world stage, where Phelps has rarely faltered.
• Men's 200 IM, Thursday, July 28
After 17 failed attempts over seven years, Lochte finally beat Phelps head-to- head in a major 200 IM race, at last year's Pan Pacs, nearly eclipsing his own world record -- one of the 43 set in Rome the previous year -- in the process. In Shanghai, he'll have the opportunity to reaffirm his supremacy, but Phelps isn't the only one he'll have to fend off: Watch for 2008 silver medalist Laszlo Cseh of Hungary and Brazil's Thiago Pereira, who beat Lochte in the 200 IM and 400 IM at the Santa Clara International Grand Prix in June.
• Women's 100 breaststroke, Tuesday, July 26• Women's 200 breaststroke, Friday July 29
Rebecca Soni of the United States, who won a gold medal in the 200 breaststroke and a silver in the 100 breast in Beijing, hasn't slowed down much since the high-tech suits were banned: At Pan Pacs, she threatened the world records in both events. Given the fierce competition in Shanghai, she should do it again next week. The 100 breast field will be particularly loaded with rivals, including Australia's Leisel Jones as well as the U.S.' Jessica Hardy and Russia's Yulia Efimova, who both train alongside Soni at USC.
• Men's 1,500 freestyle, Saturday, July 30
At the Asian Games last fall, China's Sun came within a second of the oldest long-course world record in the books, Australian Grant Hackett's 2001 mark of 14:34.56 in the 1,500 free. Can Sun break it in front of a supportive home crowd? It won't be easy: The 1,500 will come at the end of what could be a very long week for Sun, who has the top time in the world this year in the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles. However, the presence of Tunisia's Ous Mellouli, the defending Olympic and world champion who has also flirted with the record, should provide extra fuel.