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Time For Tech Not Tinkering On Breaststroke

Feb 27, 2013  - Craig Lord


Back in 1911, a man called  George Corsan, a Canadian chief instructor and pool designer for the YMCA and author of some of the first definitive books on swimming instruction, was to be found teaching a fishtail action in swimming that would ultimately led to the birth of modern butterfly in 1952.

Between the early use of dolphin action among competitive swimmers and FINA's vote at 1952 Congress to create butterfly as a stroke apart from breaststroke and sew the seed of medley, breaststroke was a stroke in development, the loopholes in the law too wide to make the realms of "level playing field" and the standardisation sought by FINA at its own birth in 1908.

On tour in the US in 1927, Eric Rademacher (GER), then world record holder on breaststroke, displayed a technique that involved pulling back to the hips underwater and wheeling the arms overhead for the last stroke into turns. The underwater technique was used by all medallists at the 1928 Games, but none, barring Walter Spence (CAN) in 6th, dared use the overhead arm action for fear of disqualification. Their fears were unfounded. David Armbruster, coach at University of Iowa, took it all further when he instructed his charges to do a fishtail action. 

In December 1933, Henry Myers became the first person to race continuous butterfly arms when he won a 150-yard medley race. Officials studied the rulebook but could find no reason to declare Myers in default. For the next 19 years, the stroke would be known as “butterfly-breaststroke”. At the 1936 Games, Maria Lenk (BRA) used butterfly arms in the 200m breaststroke heats and semis, and in London, 1948, the 200m breaststroke final won by Joseph Verdeur (USA), saw seven men use an over-arm stroke.

From 1952,  the new strokes would first be known as “Orthodox Breaststroke” and “Butterfly Breaststroke” but by 1956 there were registered at the Olympic Games as butterfly and breaststroke. Medley made it to the Olympic Games in 1960.

While the 1952 breaststroke/butterfly ended two decades of uncertainty over breaststroke, not all loopholes had been closed. At the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games, FINA Congress agreed that “no competitor is allowed to use or wear any device to help his speed or buoyancy during a race”, while “swimming under the water is prohibited except of one initial arm stroke and one leg kick after start and turn” on breaststroke. 

That new rule would only take hold on May 1, 1957, too late to stop Masaru Furukawa, of Japan, becoming the most invisible champion in Melbourne, having swum underwater for some 150m of the 200m breaststroke final, surfacing only for breathing, for turns and the final approach to an Olympic record of 2mins 34.7sec ahead of teammate Masahiro Yoshimura and the first Soviet swimmer to win an Olympic medal, Kharis Yunichev.

However, it was the interpretation of existing rules that caused even greater controversy: among six swimmers disqualified in the 200m was Herbert Klein (GER), 1952 bronze medallist and former world record holder. His misdemeanour: a scissor kick and dipping his right shoulder. The judging decision caused schism in FINA: Max Ritter, the Vice-President born in Germany and representing the USA, boycotted the post-Games Congress at which he would have been elevated to President. FINA members felt that Furukawa’s victory was achieved “against the spirit of the sport” but stuck with the judge’s decision on Klein. 

Down the years, breaststroke rules were ironed out, clarity introduced on issues of touching walls with two hands, in line and not; on whether then head can go below the surface or not, and so on. 

Now as we approach the 2013 World Championships, with a Congress due to be held on the eve of racing, we hear from Russia that LEN, the European body, has discussed the issue ahead of a FINA decision that may allow multiple dolphin kicking, depending on how the voting at Technical Congress goes, from the autumn onwards (rules agreed in July will not come into force until later in the years and will not be enforced at the world titles). 

If the votes go the way some would like - ignore the need for underwater cameras to make judgments on rule infractions and appeals, while allowing multiple kicking underwater at the start of breaststroke races - chaos and controversy will reign in Barcelona during the eight days of racing in the pool.

The judges who could not see past the bubbles at London 2012, will still not be able to see past them at Barcelona 2013, while TV cameras, which are not allowed to be used as evidence in challenges and appeals, would be beamed to the world showing, as they did in London, dubious practices that at best stretch the spirit of the rule book and at worst break it.

Here is the relevant passage: 

  • SW7.1 states: After the start and after each turn… A single butterfly kick is permitted during the first arm stroke, followed by a breaststroke kick.
  • That is backed up by SW 7.5 in which no "flutter" or "downward butterfly" kick is allowed at other points in the races no covered by SW7.1. 

It might be wise to join those two thoughts in the rule book for absolute clarity.

What is clear is a dislike among leading swimmers and coaches of the possible outcome described by Vladimir Salnikov in his missive  to the Russian swimming community yesterday. Kristy Kowal, former world champion andy Olympic silver medallist for the US, was among those tweeting to that effect yesterday, while world record holder Jessica Hardy noted the risk of introducing unfairness into the game when she tweeted that allowing dolphin kicking out of starts would spell the end of her short-course career. Some would gain from the move, others would lose. The idea of leaving the stroke alone and allowing cameras to work out who followed the rule and who not is also supported by Megan Jendrick, nee Quann, Olympic 100m breaststroke champion at Sydney 2000 and a member of the victorious US 4x100m medley quartet.

Governance is about ensuring level playing fields not introducing rules that render some winners and others losers. Governance is about making the rules and race conditions as clear as possible and avoiding any risk of what unfolded in London last year in events that had Cameron Van der Burgh (RSA) fired at for being honest, regardless of whether we think he was right or wrong to have taken advantage of the frailty of the rule book and limitation of human sight.

The Olympic champion said: "I think every single swimmer does that. At the point of time before the fly kick was legal, [Kosuke] Kitajima was doing it and the Americans were complaining. I think its pretty funny of the Australians to complain because in the underwater footage if you look at Brenton Rickard in the lane next to me he's doing the exact same thing as me and yet they are turning a blind eye. It's got to the point where if you are not doing it you are falling behind or giving yourself a disadvantage. Everyone is pushing the rules and pushing the boundaries and if you are not doing it you are not trying hard enough. For instance me, I lost my 50 breaststroke (title) last year because a Brazilian swimmer did fly kicks and beat me and I think only if you can bring in underwater footage that's when people will stop doing it. We will have piece of mind to say I don't need to do it because not everyone else is doing it and it's a fair playing field.

"Everybody does it, well if not everybody 99 per cent of them. If you are not doing it you are falling behind and giving yourself a disadvantage. For me, it's not obviously, shall we say, the moral thing to do but I'm not willing to sacrifice my personal performance and four years of hard work for someone else who is willing to do it and get away with it and has proven to get away with it as they did last year."

Van der Burgh supported the use of underwater cameras, saying: "It was two years ago in Stockholm at the World Cup [when they used video footage to decide whether a swimmer had broken the rules] and it was really awesome because nobody attempted it and it was the first time that it was really clean. They used underwater footage. We all came up clean and we all had piece of mind that nobody was going to try it. I'm really for it if they can bring it in, I"m all for it, it will better the sport, but like I say I'm not willing to lose to someone who is doing it, who has done it to me before."

The solution favoured by some in Europe - to change what is allowed in the stroke in racing - is not the way to go. The solution is already out there: in the US, underwater cameras have been used successfully to determine if competitors are taking more than the one dolphins action allowed out of starts. 

Advancements in material technology were put to poor use and poured unfairness into the race pool in 2008 and 2009 before the ban on non-textiles from 2010. Not all advancements in science and progress are bad for swimming, of course: the sport should use the technology that has long been available to monitor what swimmers are doing below the water and judge if all is well and fairness reigns. That is not only pertinent to the start of breaststroke races but across the broader picture of disqualification, appeals and judgments. 

More than 40 years after electronic timing was judged correctly to be superior to the human eye when it came to judging who touched first, there is no shame in saying that the official on deck can't see what's happening below the bubbles. 

Don't tinker further with a stroke more tinkered than any other; turn the cameras on.