Conventional wisdom claims that swimming in America is organized differently than swimming in Poland. But what exactly makes these two systems distinct, and more importantly do these different institutional arrangements matter? The American model of swimming is based on a set of inclusive institutions that foster competition, organic development, and black swans. Conversely, Polish swimming is founded on exclusivity, which is meant to promote only top-level swimmers. This basic distinction explains much of the variation in the outcomes these two systems produce.
To understand swimming in America, it is necessary to grasp the inclusivity that underpins the sport. At every stage of development there exist a variety of choices that parents and their children can pick from. This fosters competition between schools, clubs, and coaches, which arguably leads to better services and better results. Pre-college swimmers, for example, can train with their high-school teams, clubs, or both, and there are also summer club options. Moreover, even mediocre swimmers can find an appropriate college-level swim team. American higher education is both numerous in terms of absolute number of colleges and universities that house swimming programs, and diverse in terms of level of competition (Division 1 to 3). This type of inclusivity means that most swimmers, regardless of their ability and talent, can find a place to swim if they want to. Inclusivity, in turn, promotes organic development.
Organic development drives the progress of swimming in America. Even an amateur observer of swimming can notice that “standards” and “cuts” for top meets continue to get faster virtually every year. However, top swimmers are not responsible for this improvement. Instead, pre-college swimmers at low-levels of the sport continue to get faster, and thus create a slow but deliberate ripple effect that eventually finds its way to the top. The best swimmers compete not only against other excellent swimmers but also against second-tier swimmers who want to become excellent. The bottom-up pressure when combined with inclusivity not only creates fiercer competition between top swimmers, it also makes the development of black swans possible.
The black swan is an idea developed by Nassim Taleb in his excellent book (see also here). In this context, a black swan is a swimmer that overachieves given his prior achievements. American college teams are full of athletes who blossom only when they become college level swimmers. But this phenomenon also includes top swimmers. Connor Jaeger, for example, qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London in 1500 meter freestyle, even though it was only the fifth time ever he swam the 1500 in competition (!). These types of surprises are not accidental. Instead, the very nature of American swimming makes them possible because black swans are a function of inclusivity and organic competition. This combination essentially ensures that American swimming will remain dominant even in the post-Phelps era.
Swimming in Poland operates along much different institutional trajectories, and most of them can be explained by reference to years 1945-1989 when the country was under Soviet domination. The Soviet style of training and thinking has left a lasting impact on the way swimming in Poland is organized. First of all, the very nature of the system is exclusive, which means that swimmers do not have many options to choose from. Although the situation has gotten better in recent years, the options become more limited as swimmers become more advanced. This problem is most acute among college level swimmers. The scope of university swimming in Poland is so limited that even the best swimmers very often decide to compete for American colleges. The exodus of top college-level swimmers is looked at with disapproval by many, but the truth is that at this point Poland does not have the necessary infrastructure that would be conductive to world class swimming and education.
Furthermore, the line between public teams and private clubs continues to be blurred. It is not uncommon for a swimmer to represent club A and compete for high-school B, while swimming under a coach who works for club C. This complex arrangement usually finds its expression in boarding schools that the best swimmers go to. The pooling of best high-school swimmers might or might not be a good solution, but the essential point is that fast swimmers have to attend these schools unless they happen to be born in bigger cities where the number of options is more numerous.
As Polish swimmers become older a screening mechanism is activated, and those deemed not fast enough find themselves without a place to train. The benefit of such an arrangement is that it develops a very strong, albeit narrow, group of high-school swimmers. The drawback is that progress for the most part stops at this level as well. Looked at from this point of view, it is easy to see why Polish swimmers continue to perform rather well at European Junior championships, but that success tends not to translate into achievements at major international events. Thus, even the development of best swimmers tends to be thwarted by the lack of necessary infrastructure.
Because inclusivity is not the norm in Poland, organic development also does not take place. The improvement of Polish swimming continues to be a top-down affair, as national records tend to be broken by the very swimmers who hold these records in the first place. It is interesting to see how the “core” of Polish national team remains intact from one Olympic games onto another. The point, of course, is not that the National team is full of weak swimmers – they are excellent as any athlete good enough to compete in Olympic games is. Instead, this development underscores the lack of organic competition and essentially preempts black swans from happening.
Much more could be written about both of these systems, but I hope this short essay makes it clearer why they are different from each other, and why in turn American swimming continues to dominate international competition while Polish swimmers have a hard time repeating their success from the 2004 Olympic Games. In Athens Polish National team won three Olympic medals (1 x gold and 2 x silver) and Polish swimmers appeared in five finals. Now consider that during the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Olympic games combined Poland did not collect any medals and swimmers appeared only in seven finals total. To be sure, Poland will never be a swimming superpower, but as it stands much energy and potential is simply wasted. There is much that can be learned from the American model of swimming; Poland would do especially well to make inclusiveness the emphasis going forward because inclusiveness is as a pre-condition for both organic development and black swans. On the other hand, I am a political scientist who studies institutions, and institutions tend to be very durable and difficult to change. Tokyo 2020 is just two years away, but I am already prepared to hear the unusually long American anthem on more than one occasion. If Polish swimmers appear in final heats at least three times, I will count that as a success.
P.S. Some readers might find the attached cover picture surprising, but there is a logic to it. American model of swimming is like a bird ready to fly away and soar at any moment, the pig symbolizes a constrained system that is unlikely to produce surprising outcomes. Also, the picture was so different that I had to use it as my cover image.