The biennial swimming world championships begins on 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 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 $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.
The main swimming events should still 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 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.
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 100m 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.
“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.”