BARCELONA -- It is 29 years since Joan Benoit ran the marathon at the Los Angeles Summer Games. Women now compete at the Summer Games in wrestling and boxing. At the 2012 London Games, every national Olympic committee in the world -- finally -- sent female competitors. The U.S. team was more than 50 percent female.
And yet there remains a curious anachronism. In swimming, one of the most progressive of sports, men -- only men -- race the Olympic 1500 meters. The longest distance in the pool on the Olympic program for women is 800 meters, as it has been since 1968.
There are moments in sports when you know you are bearing witness to something special -- to a moment that may change the way things are because, simply, frankly, that change is the right thing to do. On Tuesday night at the Palau Sant Jordi, American Katie Ledecky, Denmark's Lotte Friis and New Zealand's Lauren Boyle put on a performance that was, unequivocally, the best women's distance swim race of all-time and ought to immediately spur the addition of the women's 1500 to the Olympic program.
Like, right now. Without question or hesitation. There can be no doubt.
The women's 1500 is -- obviously -- on the world championships program. It has been since 2001. Friis, 25, won the event at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai. Ledecky, 16, won the Olympic 800 in London. Boyle, 25, is a Cal-Berkeley grad who finished fourth in London in both the 400 and 800.
Friis swam Tuesday in Lane 4, Ledecky in 5.
Boyle raced two lanes over, in Lane 7.
Before the race, many here suspected the world record -- set by American Kate Ziegler in Mission Viejo, California, on June 6, 2007 -- was going down.
As Jessica Hardy, who would later in the evening win a bronze medal in the women's 100-meter breaststroke, would say, swimmers can tell when a pool "feels" fast, and she said, "This pool definitely 'feels' fast."
Ledecky, in winning the 400 on Sunday in 3:59.82, became the first female in history to go under four minutes in a textile suit. Boyle took third in that race, in 4:03.89.
That Ledecky didn't break the 400 world record is something of a footnote. Italy's Federica Pellegrini holds the record, 3:59.15, but set that mark at the world championships in Rome in 2009, at the height of the plastic-suit era. To go under four minutes was a signal something truly remarkable was at hand.
That's because the 400 is arguably Ledecky's third-best event -- there being the 800 and the 1500 yet to come here in Barcelona.
With apologies to Brooke Bennett, not since Janet Evans -- and this goes back to the late 1980s and early 1990s -- has women's distance swimming seen anyone quite like Katie Ledecky.
Evans -- who was also a teen-age phenomenon -- said Tuesday by telephone it's obvious Ledecky, who projects quiet humility and decency, has extraordinary confidence. Evans said she had that same confidence at that age as well.
"As an athlete, you know every time and race it's not a question of if you're going to win a medal, it's how much you're going to win a medal by," Evans said. "She has three years to get ready for Rio," meaning the 2016 Summer Games. "It's the greatest sweet spot there is."
Evans added a moment later, "The hard part about this .. is that she now has a target on her back. I mean that in the most positive way. Great champions deal with that pressure. And she is a great champion. How much faster is she going to get? I mean, it is awesome."
Which is the word for the race that went down. Just -- awesome.
Ledecky and Friis raced, as the authoritative website swimvortex.com would later recite, through swim history:
-- At 100 meters, Ledecky was at 58.75, Friis at 59.15. This was the 100-meter world-record pace in 1971 of Australian Shane Gould.
-- At 200 meters, Ledecky was 66-hundredths of a second ahead. Now they were racing at the 200-meter pace set by East German Kornelia Ender in the mid-1970s.
From 300 to 1200 meters, Ledecky let Friis set the pace. Always, though, Ledecky stayed close.
-- At 400 meters, Friis held a 63-hundredths lead. She turned in 4:05.26. This was at Evans' 400-meter pace in 1987.
-- At 800 meters, Friis was up by just 17-hundredths. She flipped in 8:17.16. Both were now inside British racer Rebecca Adlington's world title pace in 2011.
For most of the race, meanwhile, both Friis and Ledecky cruised along about five seconds inside Ziegler's split times. Then, at 1300 meters, Ledecky brought the hammer. She turned first for the first time since 250.
By 1450, Ledecky had -- this is almost outrageous -- built a 1.07-second lead.
She then delivered -- even more outrageous -- a final lap of 29.47 seconds.
Her winning time: 15:36.53.
The executive summary: Ledecky crushed the world-record -- which had stood for more than six years, and withstood the insanity of the plastic suits -- by six seconds.
Also, she beat her prior personal best, 15:47.15, by nearly 11 seconds.
Friis also beat Ziegler's world-record, and by nearly four seconds. She touched in 15:38.88.
"It's just really nice to be part of the big races, really exciting, nail-biting races," Friis would say afterward.
Boyle, meanwhile, finished in 15:44.71. That would have been the best swim of 2012, and by 21 seconds. Until Tuesday, it would have been the best swim of 2013, by two-plus seconds. As it is, it set an area record -- an "Oceania championship" mark.
"I was quite surprised I could see [only] Katie's and Lotte's feet the last 500 meters," Boyle said, smiling, adding, "It's really an honor to race those girls."
Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps' longtime mentor, said afterward that Ledecky's 1500 was "as good as any swim Michael ever did -- ever."
Missy Franklin, who won the 100 backstroke Tuesday in 58.42 seconds, her second gold medal here, watched the 1500 from the ready room while readying for another race, the 200 free semifinals, and said, "I knew that world record was definitely going down tonight. But six seconds was absolutely incredible," adding, "All of us were totally in awe of the six seconds."
Ledecky herself, asked at a news conference by the moderator if she was prepared to be the "queen or prince of these championships," quickly demurred, as she typically does.
She said, "I am just really honored to be here and to be a part of the great swimming that is going on here."
Excellence, friendship, respect -- those are the Olympic values, and they were on display in every regard Tuesday, punctuated by a spectacular world record. Put the women's 1500 on the Olympic program.