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How History Backs Kitajima's Theory

Sep 12, 2011  - Craig Lord

Quadruple Olympic breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima stated what history makes obvious when he told a Japanese talk show at the weekend that believes he will need to set a world record to retain one or both of his crowns at London 2012 to become the first man ever to claim gold at three successive Games.

"To win gold, I think I have to set a world record," Kitajima told a talk show at Namihaya Dome in Osaka. "A world record will be one of my targets as I aim for gold. I remember I was gunning for a world record as I prepared for the Beijing Olympics."

At the world championships in Shanghai in July, the 28-year-old claimed silver in the 200m after being overhauled by defending champion Daniel Gyurta (HUN) and finished fourth in the 100m won by Alexander Dale Oen (NOR) in a time just 0.13sec away from the 58.58 world record set by Australian Brenton Richard at the height of the non-textile suit circus  in Rome 2009. Such booster suits were banned on January 1, 2010.

"I'll try to build my physical strength again," said Kitajima said, who may race at the Tokyo round of the FINA World Cup in November.

History backs up Kitajima's belief: since the 100m was introduced in 1968, the world record that stood on conclusion of one Olympics has always been faster come the next Games, while three titles have been won in world-record time. The 200m has a much longer historic thread, the event swum at each Games since London 1908. During that time, there have been four occasions on which the world record standing at the conclusion of one Games remained the fastest time going into the following Games.

The first and second of those came down to the birth of butterfly and a debate that raged for more than 20 years about what was allowed on breaststroke and placed one of Kitajima's predecessors at the eye of a storm of controversy. The third and fourth cases came down to the excellence of Mike Barrowman (USA), whose 2:10.16 victory in Barcelona in 1992 survived both the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games as the world and Olympic record both until 2000.

At the 1952 Games, a butterfly action was still allowed and while the world record stood to Herbert Klein (GER) from a swim in a a 25m pool, the Olympic crown went to John Davies (AUS) in 2:34.04. The 1956 title was won in 2:34.7 by Masaru Furukawa (JPN), his effort recorded as an Olympic record despite the fact that it was 0.3sec slower than the 1952 victory and much slower than the world record. 

The explanation was twofold: in 1956 not only was butterfly a separate stroke, with breaststroke races requiring a style recognisable today and overarm action forbidden, but Furukawa exploited a loophole in the rule book and swam three quarters of the race underwater.

Furukawa's submarinery, a Japanese innovation sparked controversy in world swimming and within FINA, was subsequently banned. The 1960 Olympic title was won by William Mulliken (USA) in 2:37.4, swimming breaststroke within a traditional push off the wall at start and turn. 

The storm caused by Furukawa's disappearance disrupted FINA succession plans. By the 1956 Congress at the Melbourne Olympic Games, Max Ritter, a German-born American was the favourite to take over the presidency of FINA. 

But come the vote Ritter was missing: he had refused to attend Congress over a disagreement with fellow Bureau members after the disqualification of medal favourite Herbert Klein, of Germany, in the 200m breaststroke won by Furukawa.

While the champion had raced to glory underwater in as manner in which some FINA members felt was “against the spirit of the sport”, Klein, the last world record holder before rules insisted that global marks could only be set in long-course pools, had been disqualified for using a scissor kick (sideways movement) and dipping his right shoulder. Ritter believed that to have been misjudged.

Jan de Vries, of the Netherlands, was elected president, while Ritter waited a further four years before taking the top position.

Mean time, the 2:27.3 at which Klein set the world record over 200m breaststroke on June 9, 1951, using butterfly arm action in a short-course pool, would not be surpassed on pure breaststroke until 1969, though the time did not retain world-record status after Knud Gleie, of Denmark, set a global mark of 2:37.4 on February 14, 1953. Klein was the last man to hold the mark under rules that allowed an overarm butterfly action on breaststroke.

The division of the two strokes and the official birth of butterfly more than 40 years after the first recorded use of a fishtail action prompted FINA to set a standard time of 2:38 for the 200m breaststroke world mark. Gleie was first inside the mark.

The world-record history book, both long and short-course, reflects the fact that FINA took into account changes in the competition environment when change occurred through innovation or rule change. While lines were drawn to reflect changed conditions, world-record setters over the past 100 years saw their efforts counted either side of any line.

That trend ended in 2008-2009, when FINA allowed the use of non-textile suits for 22 months, then banned them from January 1, 2010 without drawing a line to show that race conditions had changed radically. In 2010, for the first time in any calendar year in recorded world-record history in swimming, dating back more than 100 years, no world records fell in the primary pool of the era (Olympic, 50m these days). 

In 2011, Ryan Lochte (USA, 200m medley) became the first (and only) swimmer in a textile suit to race inside a world record set in a non-textile suit, while Sun Yang (CHN, 1500m free) was the only other record breaker, his world-championship victory inside the standard set by Grant Hackett (AUS) in a textile suit back in 2001.

One of the reasons for not drawing a line this time round was a wish to avoid having a situation in which the Olympic record might be faster than the world record. Events of 1956, however, show that the IOC has been open to reflecting changed competition conditions, Furukawa's controversial swim recorded as an Olympic record slower than the winning time in 1952.