Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Swimmers - they're all on the gear

Is any sport at the moment in a worse state than swimming?

The last time the Swimming World Championships were held in Rome it was 1994, and the controversy was over the drugged up Chinese swimmers (remember the shot of the muscle bound Le Jingyi?). This time round, there's no worries about swimmers being on the gear, it's all about wearing the gear.

Last night Brenden Rickard won the 100m Breaststroke. In doing so he took his PB from 59.65sec to a new World Record of 58.58secs. He broke the old world record set at last year's Olympics, by 33 hundredths of a second. The old world record would only have been good enough for third in Rome.

On Monday night Paul Biederman of Germany broke Ian Thorpe's 7 year old WR in the 400m Freestyle by one hundredth of a second. Biederman swam the race in 3.40.07. Last year in Beijing he swam the heats of the 400m Freestyle (his only race) in 3.48.03. That's some improvement for a 22 year old. (By comparison Thorpe did not improve on any of his world records after he turned 20).

Last night in the women's 200m Individual Medley, Stephanie Rice swam a time 1.42 seconds faster than the time she won at the Beijing Olympics - a time which was also a new world record. Last night she came second. The winner, Ariana Kukors, won in 2.06.15. Rice's time from Beijing of 2.08.45, would have only been good enough for 4th place last night.

I could go on (six world records fell on the first night)- and at the end the result would be the same - who gives a stuff. Because, as we all know, the records are meaningless. They owe little to performance of the swimmer, and everything to the performance of the swimsuit they are wearing.

The suits - like the Jaked 01 and the Arena X-Glide - were actually ruled illegal in May by the world swimming authority, FINA. Under pressure from the manufacturers, it reversed that decision and allowed the full-polyurethane suits to be worn. What it has decided instead is that the suits will be banned from next year, and not only that, even the suits worn last year at Beijing would be banned. In fact they propose going back to pre-2000 standards. Men will only be allowed to wear waist to knee suits, and women, shoulder to knee. Crucially the suits must be made of textile material - ie not polyurethane.

What this means is that the records set this year will survive for decades. Some - such as those set by Phelps (who is a freak already) - may never be broken. They will be the equivalent of the women's athletics world records that were set in the steroid fuelled 1980s.

Consider the men's 400m medley, Phelps WR set at Beijing is 4.03.84. The WR swam by Tom Dolan at the Sydney Olympics was 4.11.09 - and that time broke his own 6 year old world record by 0.46 secs, and that swim had broken a 3 year old record by 0.06 secs. So it took 9 years to take just over half a second off the WR - or about a 0.19% improvement. In the 9 years since 2000, Phelps has taken 7.25 seconds off the WR - or roughly a 2.8% improvement. Now Phelps is a rarity who is a world class freestyler, backstroker and butterfly swimmer, but do you really think he is that good? You know how long it took to knock 7 seconds off the WR prior to 2000? Try 16 years.

Now OK, I admit Phelps is a once in a hundred year's swimmer, but he is also swimming in patently advantageous swimsuits. Do you really think his WR will be beaten once that advantage is taken away? Phelps won't be able to beat his own times, so good luck anyone else....ever.

But what can you do? Does Thorpe's record deserve to reinstated? But then he wore a wrist to ankle bodysuit that would also be disallowed under the new rules. So that would hardly be fair.

What I would do is just start again.

This is not without precedent. In 1986, the Javelin was getting to the point where the world record at 100m+ was such that stadiums were struggling to contain the sport - if things kept going pretty soon people in the third row of the stands would be having to wear body armour. So the IAAF re-weighted the javelin, putting the centre of gravity forward, and thus making it harder to throw. They also reset all the world records, because of course the equipment was different, so no proper comparison could be made.

It's the same here, so let's do that here. On December 31 all the swimming world records should be put in the museum. Give everyone one year to set new times, and on December 31, 2010 set the new world records for each event.

Drastic yes, but at least then the times would mean something. The only other way is to blot out all times set post the time when the new suit came in - but that is too vague a time, and would create disputes over who was wearing a legit suit or not back in 1999 etc.

Better to say they were of a different time and start again.

Last night Michael Phelps lost the 200m freestyle to Paul Biederman. Last year at the Olympics Biederman came 10th in the 200m freestyle in a time of 1.47.09. Last night he won in a new WR of 1.42.00 (breaking Phelps' record of 1.42.96 - yep he took nearly a second off it). Phelps who was not swimming in the new suits, but in the "old" LZR Seepdo suit (the ones that were worn by all the winners at the Beijing Olympics), came second in 1.43.22. The last time the 200m freestyle WR was broken by such a large amount was back in 1975, when American Bruce Furniss broke his own WR.

Phelps has rather pettily come out and said he will likely boycott international swimming meets till the end of the year, when these new suits are banned. Interestingly he wasn't so concerned last year when the LZR suit that he wore gave swimmers an advantage over those who did not wear them. In fact the big reason this issue has come to a head is that the best suit is not one by world leader Speedo. Speedo weren't happy; though they are equally unhappy that FINA will ban the LZR (further evidence that FINA's decision is a smart one).

Whatever the case, this just reinforces the fact that all world records set in these new suits are jokes - just as were those set last year at Beijing in the LZR.

Scrub them all and start again!


Polyquats said...

There was a bit of teeth gnashing over the lost Thorpe record on RN this morning, without any mention of the fact that the suit he wore then will also be illegal under the new rules.
As well as resetting the records, perhaps FINA needs to reset procedures for approving innovation in equipment. In fact, that should probably apply to all sporting bodies.
Of course, we could go back to the original Olympic tradition, where everyone competed naked. Ricky Berens has already made a start - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/07/27/ricky-berens-splits-swims_n_245780.html

Grog said...

True Polyquats - I noticed as well yesterday in the Daily Tel they made big mention that the woman who beat Stephanie Rice wore the new suit and yet failed to mention that Rice did as well.