Olympics swimming outdoors for first time since '92

Updated: August 12, 2004, 1:28 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- The sizzling Grecian sun dipped low in the sky. A gentle breeze rippled the flags atop the Olympic swimming pool. No roof? No problem -- at least for the evening finals, when conditions at the open-air venue could be ripe for world records.

For the first time since 1992, Olympic swimming will be staged in an uncovered area.

It wasn't supposed to be this way: Olympic organizers reneged on plans to install a roof over the pool. The previous contractor backed out on the project because of technical problems, and officials finally decided it was better to have an open-air pool than risk not getting it done in time for the eight-day competition, which begins Saturday.

Olympic officials have pushed the starting time for the finals back 30 minutes to 7:30 p.m., hoping to lessen the sun's punishing influence. The sun, which doesn't set until nearly 9 p.m., typically nudges temperatures into the upper 90s.

A gusty wind kicks up most evenings, but the breeze is barely felt on the pool deck.

"It's more of a sweaty heat. That would be called humidity." said Dana Kirk, who will swim the 200-meter butterfly. "I like the heat. I'd rather be warm than cold. I swim a lot better when it's hot."

Klete Keller, who will swim two individual events and a relay, doesn't know what all the fuss is about.

"All you have to do is drink more water," he said. "People made this out to be a lot worse than it is. I feel looser in the heat."

Of the 43 American swimmers, 17 are from hot and humid climates in Arizona, California and Florida, where outdoor pools are the norm.

"I don't think not having a roof will be any issue at all," said Lenny Krayzelburg, who swept the backstroke events in an indoor pool at the Sydney Games. "Last night, there was a little breeze. It was perfect weather to swim in the Olympic Games."

But morning preliminaries will be held when the sun has already heated up the shadeless pool deck. Backstrokers will experience the worst of it, staring into a burning orb in the clear, blue sky, which could affect their bearings and ability to remain on course.

"It's going to be at a premium to find a little shade. Hydration is going to be an issue," said Tom Malchow, the defending Olympic 200-meter butterfly champion. "Hopefully, we plan for that."

Swimmers can hide out under tents near the warm-down pool while preparing for their preliminaries and semifinals.

"The sun will be a little hot," Krayzelburg conceded.

More than a little: The stadium's plastic seats will register near broiling in the morning.

"It's going to be warm," said Lindsay Benko, who will swim the 200-meter freestyle. "I'm more worried about my family that's going to be in the stands."

In Sydney, the indoor atmosphere heated up with the presence of 18,000 screaming fans every night. The stands stretched to the top of the stadium, but they were set far back from the deck. In Athens, the seats are closer in, putting fans nearly on top of the swimmers.

"I love the pool and I love the atmosphere," Benko said. "I feel really fast in it. It's not so overwhelming like Sydney."

Australian coach Leigh Nugent dismissed concerns about the pool overheating under the relentless sun.

For one thing, wind would actually slow down times more, he said. And for another, conditions are the same for everybody.

"We haven't come here to set world records," he said. "We've come here to compete in the Olympics."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press