They held a premiere in Los Angeles last week to introduce the new Olympic swimming venue. It opened to mixed reviews. The feature attraction was the McDonald's International Invitational meet, and it included a cast of some 330 swimmers from 20 countries who came to test the waters of the $4-million outdoor pool that will be used for the Games next summer. As at all premieres, a few stars showed up, the brightest being Vladimir Salnikov of the Soviet Union.
The day before the meet began, the temperature was pushing 95°, the blue water of the 50-meter pool glistened in the hot sun and smog lay like a brown velvet shroud over Los Angeles. Salnikov was asked about the new facility.
"It's nice. It's not bad. But it's not extraordinary," he said, hedging. "I hope there will be something to protect us from the sun next summer."
But what about the smog? Will it bother you?
July 24, 1983
"I thought about smog," said Salnikov, "but I haven't seen it yet."
He nonetheless was able to spot some flaws in the venue, notably the walk of several hundred yards that swimmers had to take every time they wanted to shower or change. He also suggested that he didn't think the pool was very fast. Salnikov, the world-record holder in the 400, 800 and 1.500 freestyle, would be trying its speed in the 800 on Thursday and the 400 on Saturday, but would skip the 1,500. He was saving himself for the European Championships in late August.
The top U.S. swimmers were evidently saving themselves, too. Few bothered to show up in Los Angeles, because, said U.S. officials, they were busy training for the national long-course championships—which will also serve as the Pan Am Games trials—in Clovis, Calif. in early August. Some notables did turn out: UCLA's Bill Barrett; Tiffany Cohen of Mission Viejo; Tony Corbisiero of Columbia University, ranked second to Salnikov in the 800-meter free.
This rather weak American aggregation had to face East Germany's four top women swimmers, and the U.S.S.R.'s best men. And, oh yes, Japan sent over a large contingent, though no one was particularly worried about them. All of which made for a rather strange meet, which at times seemed more a dress rehearsal for next year's big show than a major international competition. For the foreigners, the McDonald's meet was the only time they would be able to try the pool before 1984; for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, it was a chance to listen to complaints.
And complaints they heard. The harshest critic was the G.D.R.'s Petra Schneider, current world women's 400 IM record holder, who claimed that the pool lacked both an overflow gutter and extra lanes on either edge to act as a cushion for the chop stirred up by competitors. "If you're in the center lane, it's O.K.," said Schneider, "but in the outside lanes, the waves slow you down."
This attack mystified Jay Flood, swimming commissioner for the '84 Games, who pointed out that there are, indeed, two-foot-deep gutters all around the pool, and, furthermore, that there is an extra—though narrow—lane on either side of the pool. The only condition that might account for some of Schneider's criticism was that the water level was a millimeter or so too low. That problem could easily be solved by—listen to this—adding more water.
The U.S. got off to a good start on Thursday in the first event of the meet, the women's 800 free, which Cohen won in 8:36.95, 12.33 off the world record but almost 20 seconds better than Schneider's time. (Schneider later said she was using the 800 as a warmup for Friday's 400 IM, a race she won in 4:45.92.) On Friday the U.S.—and Cohen—won a second gold medal, this time in the women's 800-free relay; and on Saturday Cohen came through again, winning the 400 free in 4:13.57. Said Cohen, "I think it's a fast pool. Also, the gutters are deep and the water flows easily."
Commissioner Flood was, no doubt, gratified by these comments, but he was also in a good mood on Thursday because it was his 50th birthday. "My best birthday present," he said, "was a world record in the new pool."
Predictably it was Salnikov who came bearing the gift. He broke his 800-Tree mark by .5 second. Back in the interview tent the press applauded Salnikov, then someone brought up the smog. Again.
Question: "This was the worst day for smog in three years. Did it affect you?"
Salnikov: "What smog? I would like someone to show me smog! I have not seen smog!"
The most surprising moments at this odd meet were provided by the Japanese. On Thursday 14-year-old Hiroko Nagasaki won the women's 200 breaststroke in 2:30.73, a U.S. open record, and then won the final in the event in 2:29.91, only 1.55 seconds off the world record. In the men's 200 breast, Shigehiro Takahashi swam a respectable 2:18.39 to get the gold medal, and Kaori Yanase, 15, won both the women's 100 free on Thursday and the 200 free on Friday. "I was lucky to win yesterday," Yanase said modestly after the 200. "Today, I was lucky again." But luck aside, did Yanase think that Japan was again becoming a swimming power?
"Positively!" she said.
Don Gambril, the U.S. Olympic swimming coach, agreed. "They take the same approach with swimming as they do in the business world," he said. "They have pictures of the strokes of our swimmers, a stroke-by-stroke analysis. I think they may know more about what our swimmers are doing than we do."
Which may explain why the Japanese won two more events on Sunday. Cohen, meanwhile, got her fourth gold, in the 1,500 free, and Pablo Morales of Santa Clara won the 100 butterfly, the first U.S. male to triumph at an Olympic distance. Though no one—yeah, sure—was counting, the final gold medal totals were: Soviets 12; Americans 7; East Germans 6; and Japanese 6.
And with that the curtain fell on the third opening of a new Olympic venue—the velodrome and track preceded the pool. As the crowd filed out, some no doubt paused to take a last look at the tinsel behind the awards stand or to gaze at the lush pinks, the lemony yellows and the lime greens that brighten a decor Flood calls "festive Federalism." But, Commish, isn't it a bit, ah, garish?
"Hey," Flood said, "this is showtime. It's Hollywood, it's fantasyland."