Five-Ring Circus

Katie Ledecky Will Not Be Swimming Her Best Event in Rio. That Is a Travesty.   

Katie Ledecky poses after winning gold in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the 2015 FINA World Championships. Not pictured: Ledecky swimming the 1,500 at the Olympics.

Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Olympic history is rife with injustice. In 1972, referees gave the USSR three chances to play the final three seconds of the men’s basketball final; on their final try, the Soviets finally sank a shot to beat the United States. In 1988, boxer Roy Jones Jr. lost the gold medal to South Korea’s Park Si-hun despite routing him in the ring—the bribery scandal was revealed years later.

We are about to witness a similar travesty at the Rio Games. We know it’s coming, it’s not even the fault of corrupt officials, and there is nothing we can do about it.

American swimmer Katie Ledecky should be getting ready to attempt a feat as impressive as Michael Phelps’ eight-gold-medal haul in 2008 and as challenging as Carl Lewis’ four-gold spree in 1984. While Ledecky will surely win a bunch of hardware in Rio, she is being denied a shot at something historic: the chance to win gold medals at every freestyle distance from 200 to 1,500 meters.

The 19-year-old holds the world record in the women’s 400, 800, and 1,500. She is not just a little bit better than everybody else in the pool. Her closest competitor in the 800 is 12 seconds slower; in the 1,500, that gap is 25 seconds. She also has the second-fastest time in the world this year in the 200-meter freestyle and beat Missy Franklin to win the U.S. Olympic Trials. So what’s holding her back? Despite a push by FINA, the sport’s governing body, women do not compete in the 1,500 in the Olympics.

The IOC has rejected FINA’s proposal to add the 1,500 for women and the 800 for men, reportedly because it does not want “to add more events to an already crowded schedule.” That explanation doesn’t hold water. There are 16 swimming events each for men and women; track and field offers 24 events for men and 23 for women. Besides, any argument the IOC wants to make about not adding more athletes to the field, having set a cap of 10,500, has been rendered moot by the inclusion of five sports to the 2020 Olympic program—baseball/softball, climbing, surfing, skateboarding, and karate—that will grow the games by almost 500 competitors.

In reality, the 800 and 1,500 are longshots to get added to the program because distance events aren’t super exciting to watch. (I swam the 500 in high school, and had to deal with lots of groans from people I thought were my friends and loved ones.) But there’s no denying that there’s a whiff of sexism in the fact that women are limited to the 800 while men swim the longer distance—the 1,500 has been part of the men’s program since 1908. Debbie Meyer, who won the 200, 400, and 800 at the 1968 Olympics, laments that she never got to swim the 1,500 at the Olympic level. “It really was all about the thinking then,” Meyer told the New York Times, “which was, women were the weaker sex and because men were stronger people, they could last the distance.”

Katie Ledecky celebrates after setting a new world record in the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle at the 2015 FINA World Championships.

Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

Why should we care that Katie Ledecky won’t swim 30 laps in Rio’s Olympic-size pool? Because we will be deprived of the chance to see her compete in both the 200 and the 1,500, two events that require completely different mental and physical approaches. We’re missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime display of versatility and athleticism. Imagine, for a moment, that Usain Bolt announced he was going to run the 1,500 meters in Rio. According to his agent, Bolt “has never run a mile.” World’s greatest athlete—pssh.

OK, maybe that comparison is a bit unfair, but there are good—albeit imperfect—analogies between track and swimming. The 200 in swimming corresponds most closely to the 800 in track. They are both too long to be a flat-out sprint, but too short to be a distance race. And the 1,500 in the pool is closest to the 5,000 on land. Both races even take roughly the same amount of time. They require endurance and pacing and strategy.

Many runners try for an 800/1,500 double, while others opt for the 5,000/10,000 combo. No one trains for the 800 and the 5,000 at the same time. Similarly, in swimming, the 400/800 freestyle double is pretty common. Janet Evans won both of those and the 400 individual medley at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Almost no one attempts the 200 and the 1,500. In fact, only once in history has a woman held the world records for every freestyle event from the 100 to the 1,500. Australian Shane Gould, the Ledecky of her day, owned those marks from December 1971 to September 1972 and won five medals at the Munich Olympics.

Watching Ledecky go for gold in the 200 and the 800 will be impressive, but it’s not the same as seeing her demonstrate just how dominating she is in the 1,500. How realistic would a hypothetical 200/400/800/1,500 be for Ledecky? Pretty realistic considering she’s already accomplished the “Ledecky Slam”—she won all four distances at the 2015 World Championships In Kazan, Russia.

Ledecky was an unproven, virtually unknown 15-year-old four years ago, until she stepped onto the blocks for the 800-meter freestyle at the London Games. With Prince William and Duchess Kate watching in anticipation of Great Britain’s world-record holder Rebecca Adlington defending her 2008 gold medal, Ledecky took an early lead that she never relinquished.

She’s been doing the unthinkable ever since. Consider:

Ledecky has also been working on the 100-meter freestyle—an all-out sprint. Though she finished seventh in that event at the U.S. Olympic Trials but will swim a preliminary heat of the 4x100-meter relay in Rio. Mastering the 100 in time for Tokyo in 2020 would be one way for Ledecky to demonstrate she’s the world’s most dominant swimmer, even if the IOC won’t let her demolish the rest of womankind in her best event. Or maybe she can just enter the 1,500—and swim against the men. Her time at the 2015 World Championships would’ve landed her in 26th place in the men’s heats, better than 20 of the swimmers who entered the event. Ledecky shouldn’t have to compete against men to prove her worth. But what other choice is the IOC giving her?

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.