SWIMNEWS ONLINE: June 1997 Magazine Articles

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Cecil M. Colwin

Those who have read "The 50-Year Saga of the Breaststroke Rules" in this magazine may realize that there could a lesson contained therein. Unfortunately, the lesson has still not been learned. The lesson is that it is essential for the FINA Technical Swimming Commmittee to close any apparent loophole in the rules immediately, especially when a particular loophole results in the obvious inclusion of "a new event within an event."

A loophole in the butterfly rules permits swimmers to swim underwater using the dolphin kick for long indeterminate distances. The end result is a large helping of underwater kicking served up with a soupcon of butterfly. In fact, some swimmers, particularly in the short course events, have become so highly skilled in this art that they cover a good part of the so-called butterfly event while swimming underwater.

Now and again, when they surface to swim a few strokes of butterfly, we are reassured that we are actually watching a butterfly race, but obviously the whole production has become a travesty of what the rules really intended the butterfly to be.

Innovators Deserve Credit

Innovative swimmers, and their coaches, have shown the advantages of swimming well beneath the complicated wave-making resistance produced at water-level, and they deserve full credit for their contribution to our knowledge of human swimming propulsion. After all, competitive swimming, to large extent, is all about the quest for speed, and this should be encouraged, but within the intention of the rules.

Now, it is not for the swimmer or the coach to philosophically ponder the intention of the rules. In fact, if a loophole exists, they have every right to take advantage of it, especially at a time when statistics would otherwise show an overall flattening out in human swimming performance.

The "intention" is, or should be, the main point to all rule changes. The questions to be asked in setting a new rule should be:

When we ask ourselves "What is the intention of the rule?" it would be wise to study the historical background of that particular rule to see how changing events may have allowed loopholes to become evident to those wishing to take advantage of them.

As an example, after FINA had moved to make breaststroke a surface stroke, with only one arm pull and one kick allowed at the start and at turns, a meeting was held in October 1957 to discuss these new rules. FINA said that "there had been some misunderstanding in a few countries as to the decision of the Congress concerning the butterfly stroke," and the following clarification was adopted:

"At the start, at the turn and also during a race when a swimmer is in the underwater position, he may be allowed to make one or more leg kicks."

The purpose of this clarification was probably two-fold: First, someone may have pointed out, in those early days of learning the dolphin-butterfly, that not all swimmers were capable of returning to the surface after a dive or turn with only one kick to assist them. Some swimmers needed to do two kicks underwater, and sometimes even three kicks, when a swimmer had accidentally gone too deep at the start or at the turn. Also, younger swimmers, or swimmers of smaller stature and weaker physique, might have needed more leg kicks to resume surface swimming. (Incidentally, "leg-kicks" is typical of some of the quaint terms used by FINA's experts over the years; can one kick with any other part of one's body? If so, there may exist yet another loophole in the rules!)

Second, some swimmers at that time were using a technique in which they did a sort of porpoise dive under the surface as their arms entered the water after each recovery. At this stage, the swimmer's whole body followed through this "hole" in the water, and often there were three kicks underwater: one kick as the arms stretched forward in a sliding action, and two more kicks during the actual pull, as the swimmer surfaced again. In present-day swimming, of course, the stroke technique of the event has changed, and, in effect, as a result there exists an obvious anachronism (and a loophole) in the butterfly rules that apparently was never detected, and therefore not updated, to accord with the modern intention of the rule.

It seems that the law-makers were trying to make provision for the two contingencies mentioned above, but, in doing so, their wording was allowed to become too loose, thus leaving a loophole in the Butterfly rule that still exists today, albeit in slightly modified form:
SW 8 Butterfly
SW 8.1 "The body must be on the breast at all times, except when executing a turn. The shoulders shall be in line with the water surface from the beginning of the first armstroke, after the start and after each turn and shall remain in that position until the next turn or finish. It is not permitted to roll onto the back at any time."
SW 8.5 "At the start and at turns, a swimmer is permitted one or more leg kicks and one arm pull under the water, which must bring him to the surface."

Encourage Innovation

From the above, it must be clear that the original intention was not to permit a stroke in which the leg action was to become entirely separated from the complete butterfly stroke, and used on its own for large portions of a racing distance. In fact, in all fairness, few could ever have envisaged the modern development of prolonged underwater kicking invented by a few enterprising and innovative swimmers and their coaches.

One has only to log on to the internet to read of young swimmers seeking advice on how to do the underwater fishtail technique. This is fine, and prolonged underwater swimming is a new and interesting development that should be pursued, but continued innovation should be encouraged in exhibition events, conducted outside the existing program, and researched under the supervision of exercise physiologists and medical personnel. Certainly, it should no longer be a part of the butterfly event, or any other established event, because the end result could easily become the development of another 50-year saga, typical of the breaststroke-butterfly controversy that ruined the careers of many swimmers who were talented in one stroke only.

Provision should be made for additional "unlimited" exhibition events to be included in some meets for the purpose of showing the swimming public potentially faster methods of swimming, either above or below the water surface, and thereby encouraging further innovative developments in our quest for speed. (Perhaps, at first. these exhibitions should be over a short distance, either 25 or 50 metres.)

Distinguish between Surface and Underwater Events

The time has come for the rules to make a clear distinction between swimming on the surface of the water and swimming beneath it. If you study the history of breaststroke and butterfly, you will see that there has always been a tendency to return to underwater swimming when the rule governing the surface stroke became too well-defined for comfort.

What I am saying is that the time has come for underwater swimming to be banned in all four existing styles of swimming, except for short prescribed distances after performing the start and turn, as in the breaststroke and backstroke rules. If this does not happen, the result may well be a travesty of the intention of the rules that govern the existing strokes.

Mary T. Meagher's world records have survived for 16 years, will they be finally broken by someone kicking part of the way
For larger 64k photo click on image.

Such a distinction would preserve the four main styles of swimming in their entirety, and in the manner intended by the rules, although, obviously, the present rules do not state their intention clearly enough.

While breaststroke and backstroke have now been well defined as surface strokes, excepting for short, restricted periods underwater permitted at the start and turn, the question arises: Why should the same restrictions not apply to freestyle and butterfly?

Legislate "Crawl" and Not "Freestyle"

The Rule says that "Freestyle means that in an event so designated the swimmer may swim any style, except that in individual medley or medley relay events, freestyle means any style other than backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly."

In effect, freestyle, although it has long supposed to have been the stroke in which "anything goes," has not seen anywhere near the amount of change that has occurred in breaststroke and butterfly. However, as the other three strokes become more clearly defined, there is a danger that the inherent nature of the crawl-stroke (let's be frank, and call it "Crawl"!) may lose its original intention of being a surface stroke. There is also a danger that it may also become a "parking place" for all sorts of extraneous events that legislation may eventually bar from the other three strokes.

So why not define 'freestyle" in future as "crawl stroke" and as a stroke that is "swum on, or in, the surface of the water in prone position, with alternating arm recoveries over the water performed in the continuing sequence of left arm, right arm recovery." And do the same with backstroke, except, of course, that it should be typified as a stroke that is swum on the back.(Note: Attention to the abuses resulting from the poorly worded turning rule is long overdue.)

And, if a swimmer can comfortably and effectively perform a surface dolphin kick, or any other kick, in time with the strictly legislated alternate arm actions for these two strokes, then good luck to him or her!

Are we now faced with the possibility of another "FINA-type" protracted debate over whether swimmers should be allowed to cover ever-increasing distances underwater using the dolphin kick or newly developed fishtail kick? Are we in for more of the bungling and dithering the swimming world experienced during the 50-year saga of the breaststroke-butterfly rules? It's time that the opinions of professional coaches, who deal with stroke techniques every day of their working lives, should be sought by the FINA Technical Committee.

As a footnote, there are two quotes of interest from the article "La fin des records" by Roger Clement in NATATION Magazine, published by Federation Francaise de Natation, April-May 1997, pages 23-27.

French coach Jacques Meslier: "When Pankratov swims a 50 fly he spends more time underwater than on the surface. There have been dramatic drops in back and fly records due mostly to rule changes."

Another prominent coach Georges Garrett from Marseille: "The new rules and shorter distances such as a 50 fly are a joke. A 100 back short course and well within current rules with freestyle turns perfectly legal, a swimmer can swim on his back for no more than 43 metres."

According to former FFN Technical Director Lucien Zins: "What could John Naber do over 200 back with current rules. His sub 2 minute 200 back from 1976 was only bettered in 1983.

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