Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

While the eyes of the swimming world at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games will be on athletes like Michael Phelps, the attention of the swimming community is smaller, less renowned swimming nations will be on their own athletic representatives in Rio de Janeiro beginning on August 5th.

20-year-old Geoffrey Butler and 21-year-old Lara Butler are such Olympians.

The brother and sister developed their pool and open water swimming prowess in the Cayman Islands, but both decided to continue their studies overseas. As Geoffrey focused on distance freestyle, his older sister Lara focused on backstroke and butterfly.

Both of them qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games (Geoffrey in the 400m freestyle and Lara in the 100m backstroke) by virtue of being selected for the Olympics through the IOC’s Universality Programme. In the pool swimming events, athletes qualify by exceeding the minimum time standards, but the IOC allows certain exceptions to that rule via its Universality Programme. The programme allows countries to nominate swimming or track athletes where it lacks athletes who have not quite reached the Olympic qualifying times.

In most cases, the best athletes from a given country are awarded those slots in the IOC Universality Programme. For example, both Geoffrey and Lara have been selected as the Cayman Islands Swimmers of the Year.

When I was 5 years old, my mum attended swimming classes,” Lara recalled, “Because we lived on an island, she wanted to make sure I knew how to swim and it went from there.

Their dedication to the sport certainly gave them numerous opportunities to represent their country around the world. “It [is] an amazing honor to represent my country and wear the Cayman Islands flag proudly,” Lara says. “[Competing at Rio 2016] means everything, it is the biggest achievement in swimming, period. Every swim meet and competition leads up to it and it is everyone’s main dream. I have put a lot into swimming and sacrificed a lot to be where I am today and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Geoffrey is equally excited about the Olympics. “Rio 2016 is a dream for me, I’ve wanted to go to the Olympics since I watched the Athens Olympics in 2004. I am so proud to be from the Cayman Islands, it has always been my home and I love representing Cayman. Representing Cayman on the stage of the biggest sporting event in the world would be the greatest honor I could ever imagine.”

But not all is rosy when chasing the Olympic dream.

John Leonard of the World Swimming Coaches Association knows of numerous cases when a swimmer has been either the #1 or #2 swimmer in a country, but they were not selected. Instead, a lower ranked swimmer – sometimes significantly slower – is chosen by the administrative powers in that country.

This favoritism – and nepotism in some cases – has been going on the decades and has been described as one of the major obstacles to development in the non-major swimming world. Coaches and administrators know that “no matter what certain swimmers do, no matter how fast they swim, they will not be selected to represent their country unless they are politically favored within their own national governing body.”

But many these swimmers and coaches keep silent about this problem.

The selection of athletes by the National Federations must be approved by each of the National Olympic Committees. Coaches who wish to remain anonymous know that “one often finds business deals being made between Federation Committee members and National Olympic Committee members to ensure the selection of what usually boils down to the children or relatives of those doing the deals. Nepotism and favoritism is rampant and almost impossible to stop.”

But for every relative* and friend being selected over a more deserving athlete, it is always good to see the outcome of the IOC Universality Programme when deserving athletes like Geoffrey and Lara Butler take such a long road and deep pride in representing their country.

Photo above shows father Steve, brother Simon, mother Maria, sister Lara, and brother Geoffrey Butler.

* Cindy Boren of the Washington Post writes here about Robel Habte of Ethopia.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association