After over two years of reckless innovation in the butterfly, the so-called "submarine" technique that allowed the likes of Denis Pankratov and, most recently, Australia's Michael Klim to torpedo to world record performances, was given the boot in Perth.
At the FINA Swimming Technical Congress a week before the championships the butterfly was limited to 15 m underwater off the start and turns, in accordance with the existing rules for backstroke and breaststroke. An amendment proposed by the Americans to have the limit at 20 m was rejected.
The trend towards underwater swimming, started by Russia's Pankratov, has grown in popularity with a few swimmers (Aoyama, Hyman, Klim) adopting the submarine technique. At the last Olympic Games in Atlanta, Pankratov set a world record in the 100 butterfly (52.27), surfacing at approximately 35 metres off the start.
The change forces swimmers like American Misty Hyman, who patented the underwater "fishkick" swimming on her side, to alter their techniques and seriously reevaluate their race strategies. Swimmers had one last blast at using the technique in Perth as the new rules do not take effect until March 6, 1998.
Other decisions taken by FINA included the recognition of world records in the stroke 50s long course, as is already the case for stroke 50s in 25m pools. Semi-finals instead of "B" or consolation finals will return after a 20-year hiatus.
The most noteworthy item on the agenda at the FINA Extraordinary Congress was the Bureau proposal to lower the existing sanction of four years for a steroid offence to two years. Australia led the discussion and strongly advised against the change in order to maintain a strong stance in the face of the doping scourge. David Sparks, representing Great Britain, agreed, saying that the athletes themselves supported the stronger ban. He added that swimming should not be concerned with being a frontrunner in this issue, but should rather be proud to maintain a hard line. After Barbados also voiced its support for the longer ban, FINA Honorary Secretary Gunnar Werner bumbled the motion, asking "All those in favour of the proposal?"
The question was met with a rumble of objections, at which point FINA President Mustapha Larfaoui interjected impatiently over the hum, "I guess the Congress has decided unanimously against it, ok?"
So in a rather comical breach of protocol, the proposal, intended to bring FINA in line with other international sport federations who have lowered their bans, was overwhelmingly rejected.
In a contradictory address on Jan.8, FINA President Mustapha Larfaoui welcomed the press to Perth while making a veiled warning to critics. He said, "In reference to the press, it is not fair to continue to criticize the international governing body FINA, who is in the forefront of the fight against doping. Everyone in the FINA family knows what we are doing and some of the suspicions that are circulating are unfair and unacceptable."
He referred to Australian Head Coach Don Talbot's scathing remarks early in the week in The West Australian and made it very clear that FINA does not wish to tolerate such criticism. "It could come back like a boomerang to hit those who raise unfounded suspicions," he said.
He continued that "FINA is in the forefront in the fight against doping and this was confirmed at the Extraordinary Congress, where we decided unanimously to maintain the minimum sanction of 4 years for a steroid offence." He talked of the "time, energy and money" that this problem requires, and distributed a list of the 820 out-of-competition tests that were conducted last year at a cost of $600,000. Of those, we can count four positives for steroids.
But according to Dr. Allen Richardson of the FINA Medical Committee, many of the 173 tests conducted on Chinese swimmers were done after China's National Games in October, the wrong time, many would argue, if they were serious about catching them.
Larfaoui refused to comment on the Leopold decision saying, "I leave it to you to comment, you are the journalists." He introduced a new element, however, by saying that the the FINA Bureau's decision to withdraw Leopold's accreditation had been "provisional."
And it only got worse, as the issues piled up and FINA didn't have the necessary answers. Instead of appreciating the attention and concern for the sport and its overall health, Larfaoui seemed to resent every question put to him. When asked, after the four Chinese had tested positive, why FINA didn't put diuretics on the same level as steroids, as the IOC has done, Larfaoui, replied glibly: "We might change the rules."
Which is exactly the kind of attitude that left the lovers of the sport questioning their commitment.