BERLIN (Reuters) - One of Orjan Madsen’s first acts on taking control of German swimming was to hire a team of psychologists. Given the way morale is being sapped by the new Speedo suit that rivals are wearing, it is just as well he did.
Norwegian coach Madsen was appointed technical director of the German Swimming Federation (DSV) in 2006 with a mission to toughen up the athletes for competition in time for Beijing.
Britta Steffen and Helge Meeuw were among those in top form at the national trials in Berlin but hopes of a first German Olympic swimming gold since Dagmar Hase won the 400 meters freestyle in 1992 have faded to almost nothing, as rivals clad in the new Speedo LZR Racer suit smash records around them.
The DSV has a contract with Adidas and officials recently rejected a proposal to let their swimmers wear the hi-tech suit of one of the company’s main rivals.
Madsen, who had a long history of coaching in Germany before accepting the DSV offer, is not yet convinced the Speedo suit makes a technical difference but there is no questioning the psychological impact.
“There have been 39 world records, long and short course, this year and 90 percent of them were in Speedo,” Madsen told Reuters during a poolside interview in Berlin, shortly before Australian swimmers set two more women’s records.
”That, or course, does something to the athletes. It’s almost impossible to put yourself in a state of mind where you say it doesn’t matter. Of course it matters.
“There are athletes, as we’ve seen here, who swim in other suits and do it well. They swim European records and they beat swimmers who swim in Speedo, so it is possible. But for the next three-and-a-half months I‘m afraid that topic, that discussion of the suits, will remain.”
The controversy over the suit is simply the latest obstacle for Madsen, who could be forgiven if he is eagerly looking forward to his post-Beijing retirement when he will split his time between sports consultancy in Norway and kite-surfing at his condo in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
German swimming is weighed down by memories of the state-sponsored doping of the old DDR and suspicions were briefly revived after the team performed so well at the European Championships in Budapest in 2006.
Those suggestions were strongly denied and Madsen believes he has done everything to show his swimmers are clean, after insisting on a strict anti-doping regime that includes a full-scale blood profiling programme.
“My task is to make sure that the German team does everything to show we are clean,” Madsen said. “We do a lot of things proactively besides doping tests with (German anti-doping agency) NADA and (swimming world body) FINA and I am convinced that we are clean, and we do more than most other countries to show it.”
At last year’s World Championships in Melbourne, Madsen discovered that not all his swimmers were capable of producing their best times when it mattered, as the team picked up just three silver medals and one bronze.
Steffen, then the 100 meters freestyle world record holder, finished only third, while the talented women’s relay teams failed to perform to expectations.
There was enough on show in Berlin, however, to give Madsen cause for cautious optimism about Beijing.
Steffen shaved a 10th of a second off her old world record time and there were European records for Meeuw in the 100 meters backstroke and Sarah Poewe in the 100 breaststroke.
Steffen then showed that her decision to drop the 200 and concentrate on the shorter events was probably a wise one as she set a German record of 24.19 in the 50 meters freestyle.
”There are events where we are world class but there are also events where we are far from world class,“ Madsen said. ”Traditionally, Germany has always had strong relays, especially the women’s relays. The 4x100 and the 4x200 freestyle and also the medley relay are realistic medal contenders.
“Individually, it’s Britta Steffen, of course, in the 100 freestyle, Annika Lurz in the 200 freestyle, Helge Meeuw in the 100 back and maybe Thomas Rupprath (100 meters fly). I guess they and maybe Paul Biedermann (200 and 400 freestyle) are realistically the athletes that have a chance to win medals.”
Madsen has staged regular training camps with his elite squad since taking over and they will convene in Berlin before heading to Japan in July for a lengthy pre-Games workout.
In the meantime, Madsen will continue hoping the technical people at Adidas can make their work in the wind tunnels and laboratories pay off in time to produce a suit to rival that of Speedo.
“I hope (there’s still time),” Madsen said. “We want to have the best possible suit so we are going to work on that in the remaining time before Beijing. What we are able to accomplish we’ll see.”
Editing by Clare Fallon