Swimming worlds open post-Michael Phelps era

The biennial swimming world championships begin Saturday and for the first time in more than a decade Michael Phelps won't be competing.

Olympian retired after London 2012

Missy Franklin swims in the 200-metre freestyle during the Santa Clara International Grand Prix on June 1, 2013 in Santa Clara, California. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

The biennial swimming world championships begin Saturday and for the first time in more than a decade Michael Phelps won't be competing.

Instead, the spotlight should fall on athletes like Sun Yang and Yi Shiwen of China, Chad le Clos of South Africa, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin of the United States, 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 told The Associated Press.

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 harbour.

FINA to conduct over 800 doping tests

The international swimming federation will conduct more than 800 doping tests at the world championships.

FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu said Friday that 485 athletes will be given surprise blood tests in Barcelona in the days before competition and another 320 will undergo either blood or urine tests during the event, which starts Friday and runs to Aug. 4.

"I hope we have records and no positive tests," Marculescu said. "The most important issue for us is the investment in out-of-competition tests. When (athletes) come here, they know what is going to happen."

A total of 2,293 athletes are participating in the biennial competition that includes swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming and the new discipline of high diving.

Marculescu said all the medallists will be tested and that the final number of in-competition tests could rise if world records are set.

The other athletes tested during the competition will be selected by a board made up of three members, two from FINA and one from the local organizing committee.

FINA will incorporate the findings into its biological passport program, which started last year with 30 top competitors and has increased to 500. The passport program monitors an athlete's blood profile over time to look for any signs of doping.

FINA president Julio Maglione said that the top 50 athletes in each discipline are now tested a minimum of three times a year.

"FINA implemented the passport very strongly," said Marculescu, adding that the program costs $1.5 million annually. "It's a process started a year and a half ago and the doping review board is working on this. It's very important to have this to identify when a problem began."

— The Associated Press

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 27 metres (30 yards) and women from 20 metres (22 yards).

"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.

Big crowds expected

Prize money spread across the six disciplines amounts to $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 25,000-30,000 spectators show up for the daring display which sees athletes fly through the air for three seconds at speeds of up to 90 kph (55 mph).

Still, the main swimming events should gain the most attention, especially with local standout Mireia Belmonte of Spain a multi-medal threat. Even if Phelps, who had his breakout meet in Barcelona in 2003 by winning four golds as an 18-year-old, isn't around anymore.

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 200-meter 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.

Interesting storylines

Other swimming story lines should be Australia's attempt to bounce back from its poor showing in London, when it won only one gold for its worst showing in 20 years. Australia head coach Leigh Nugent resigned in March.

Aussie sprinter James Magnussen will be defending his gold from the 2011 worlds in the 100 freestyle after settling for silver at the Olympics.

Meanwhile, France will want to confirm itself after finishing third in the London medals table behind the United States and China with Yannick Agnel, Florent Manaudou and Camille Muffat leading the way.

However, many medallists choose to train less the year after the Olympics.

"It always happens like that but then you see them bounce back again," Marculescu said.

The post-Olympic year syndrome could be one of the reasons why FINA decided to include high diving before even holding a World Cup event in the discipline, which is based on the Red Bull Cliff Diving series.

Swimming officials said they need innovation after watching the ancient sport of wrestling lose its spot on the Olympic program.

About 20 men are expected to compete in high diving but only six women. Women just competed for the first time in the Red Bull series earlier this month in Malcesine, Italy.

"It's very small because it's the beginning," Marculescu said. "But you have to start from somewhere."