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Realism Called For On Riot Of Records

Jul 29, 2009  - Craig Lord

Paul Biedermann's world record in the 200m freestyle made him the first man since Ian Thorpe in the Dark Ages before textile caught a case of the body snatchers, to hold both 200m and 400m world record simultaneously. He also became the first German to own the record since Michael Gross from 1984 to 1988. 

US head men's coach Bob Bowman wants his and Michael Phelps's efforts of 2008 and 2009 wiped from the books. Mark Schubert, US head coach, and Forbes Carlile, Octogenarian former mentor to Shane Gould and generations of swimmers and coaches down the ages and anti-snihy-suits campaigner, want asterisks applied to "artificially aided" swims. There are positives and problems will all models so far suggested as coaches and swimmers struggle with the idea of having no realistic targets to strive for when a pb or record, national or interational, seems too far out of reach. 

Here is one other model that has precedent in FINA history: in the 1950s when the international federation wanted all world records set in 50m pools, they simply drew a line and the book began again. For a while times below the line were slower than older times above it, time set in 20 yard pools and the likes. But eventually the world moved on, progressed and found a way to get quicker, through hard work and natural talent. Similarly, in the 1990s, standard times were written into the record books  for long-course 50m records and for all world short-course records. The standard time was set to provide fairness because monitoring of such swims before had not been kept by FINA. Generally, the world-best time, in short-course usually set at the Arena Festival in Bonn during those days, was the time chosen by FINA to be the standard time.

Combine those two things together and you have something like this:

200m freestyle: world-record progression

  • 1:47.44 Michael Gross FRG 29 July 1984 Los Angeles
  • 1:47.25 Duncan Armstrong AUS 19 September 1988Seoul
  • 1:46.69 Giorgio Lamberti 15 August 1989 Bonn
  • 1:46.67 Grant Hackett AUS 23 March 1999 Brisbane
  • 1:46.34 Ian Thorpe AUS 23 August 1999 Sydney
  • 1:46.00 Ian Thorpe AUS 24 August 1999 Sydney
  • 1:45.69 Ian Thorpe AUS 14 May 2000 Sydney
  • 1:45.51 Ian Thorpe AUS15 May 2000 Sydney
  • 1:45.35 Pieter van den Hoogenband AUS 17 September 2000 Sydney
  • 1:45.35 Pieter van den Hoogenband AUS 18 September 2000 Sydney 
  • 1:44.69 Ian Thorpe AUS27 March 2001  Hobart
  • 1:44.06 Ian Thorpe AUS 25 July 2001 Fukuoka
  • 1:43.86 Michael Phelps USA 27 March 2007 Melbourne

FINA allows non-textile suits that produces artificial assistance: February 1, 2008

  • 1:42.96 Michael Phelps USA 12 August 2008 Beijing
  • 1:42.00 Paul Biedermann GER 28 July 2009 Rome

FINA returns to textile-only suits, January 1, 2010

  • 1:43.86 Standard FINA time
  • 1:43.00 Non-shiny happy person EARTH July 4 2010
  • ie (anyone who breaks that standard time is the new world record holder)

That way, no athlete is dishonoured for wearing suits that FINA and their domestic federations have allowed them to wear. And in time, the marks can be expunged if people wish them to be. Yards times were once world records but these days few recall them and no-one recognises them, and they were perfectly legitimate and meaningful in their day.

Furthermore, the above model allows federations around the world to follow with ease the same structure in their national records books, the dates easier to work out than it is to confirm beyond legal repercussion that swimmer X wore suit Y and therefore deserves to be singled out.

We will all have to wait to see what FINA does. However, when the international federation looks more closely at the issue of records and how to deal with matters in the years ahead it ought to consider that there is something that the protagonists in any show need: will to go on, to go on setting targets, to reaching for them because they are tough but realistic. Some of the times on the board after three days in Rome may stand for very many years indeed if left unchecked and unappreciated. It would also be necessary for broadcasters and others to explain why swimmers no longer break world records. The sad suits saga would live on in different guise.