The biennial swimming world championships begin tomorrow and for the first time in more than a decade Michael Phelps will not be competing.
Instead, the spotlight should fall on the likes of Sun Yang and Yi Shiwen of China, Chad le Clos of South Africa, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin of the US, and 16-year-old Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania.
“We will see how many stars come up, I have no doubt. Life goes on and on,” FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu said.
The first week of the championships is highlighted by diving — with that spectacular view of the city from the same Montjuic pool used for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics — plus open water swimming in the harbor.
Swimming and synchronized swimming will be held inside the Palau Sant-Jordi arena, which was also built for the 1992 Games, while water polo will be contested outside in the nearby Bernat Picornell.
All of the venues are the same from the 2003 worlds which Barcelona hosted, except for temporary towers that have been built for the debut of high diving, with men set to leap from 27m and women from 20m.
“The facilities are excellent, each one with its merits, conditions, and history, and not only with an excellent history, they are facilities that have been updated so they are first rate,” FINA president Julio Maglione said.
Prize money spread across the six disciplines amounts to US$3.1 million and a record 2,293 athletes have entered.
The biggest crowds could come for high diving, which is free for fans, with organizers hoping that 25,000 to 30,000 spectators show up for the daring display which sees athletes fly through the air for three seconds at speeds of up to 90kph.
Still, the main swimming events should gain the most attention, especially with local standout Mireia Belmonte of Spain a multi-medal threat.
Phelps retired after last year’s London Olympics as the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 22 medals. He competed at his first worlds in 2001 in Fukuoka, Japan, breaking the world record in the 200m butterfly to become — at 15 years and 9 months — the youngest man ever to set a swimming world mark.
“For us, Phelps is an icon. He’s the greatest Olympic athlete of all time and I think it will be 100 years before someone matches his medals record,” Marculescu said.
So what about those reports that Phelps is considering returning for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics?
“It’s his decision, not ours. He worked very hard over the years and I think he wanted to do some other things in life. I hear he is playing golf, but I also think that maybe he is missing his love, which is swimming,” Marculescu said.