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Will Bernard Blast Make It To Record Books?

Apr 24, 2009  - Craig Lord

Day three dawns at French nationals and the talk in Montpellier is about that extraordinary breakthrough world record, the 46.96 that chipped away at the aquatic rock of history in the 100m freestyle. Accompanying the cheering for Alain Bernard's achievement is the question: will the mark stand?

The answer, technically, must be "No". It cannot. The rules governing suits clearly state that a suit must be approved by FINA for a world record to stand. The international federation faces a dilemma. On the one hand Libby Trickett's 52.99 could not count, because she raced in a lane next to Michael Phelps in a mixed relay and that did not quite match the conditions laid down in the rule book. Neither does Bernard's effort meet the clear ruling that a suit must first be approved for use by FINA before it may be used in competition held under FINA rule. Still, much has depended on interpretation and loopholes in the past year. Federica Pellegrini in two suits is fine for world records and an Olympic crown. She, along with many others, fine for world records that relied (without question) on a device that enhanced their performance since the "technological doping" called the LZR (in the words of Pellegrini's coach Alberto Castagnetti) was launched in February 2008. 

So, how to cut out one act that was a blatant challenge to the legality of a current position of chaos in the world of suit governance in the context below, when you have left in place so much that broke the spirit of the sport.

FINA has just modified the world record form that goes out to federations. It was dated March 14 and would have landed at the French federation prior to Montpellier. The form is also in the public domain on the FINA website. No-one can accuse the FINA office of not being up to date on that one. The federation of the record breaker is obliged to list the names of the suite maker and model number of the approved suit. So at least one field on Bernard's form may be left empty.

Denis Cadon, chief judge at the championships in Montpellier, let the big moment pass him by. He has learned from the experience of getting his fingers burned. He is the man who got embroiled in the disqualification of Aaron Peirsol at the 2004 Olympic Games after the American claimed the 200m backstroke crown but was said to have infringed the turn rule. The paperwork was woeful. And Peirsol was reinstated immediately. Cadon, who signed the paperwork that reflected the decisions of  Russian judge Felix Mikhailov and Singaporean referee Woon Sui Kut, said at the time: "There was a problem, there was a fault. I did my job, I'm here for that." He stood by his decision. He was reprimanded and in some quarters even ridiculed.

Cadon turned a blind eye to Bernard's suit yesterday. The 46.96 will now go to FINA and LEN for ratification. Patrick Leroux, president of the Antibes club where Bernard trains tells L'Equipe: This suit has all the same characteristics of the approved suits. It complies with the Dubai Charter. It is impossible for this suit not to be approved unless FINA changes the regulation".

Well, not quite (though few expect much change this summer in Rome): true that the X-Glide suit sits alongside its approved rivals and has every right to say 'I have a right to be here in such a world', one in which since February 2008, FINA has said "go for it" with no laboratory testing or independent testing involved. But, in Lausanne in February, followed by official confirmation in Dubai in March, the new world of suit governance started to take shape. FINA would not have to change any rule already there for all current suits to be banned: it will come down to what exactly it is that Prof Jan-Anders Manson is testing for to arrive at buoyancy thumbs up or thumbs down. Right now, we await news of what will be in or out this summer, for better or worse. 

What Leroux, Bernard, Arena etc.,  are more than likely to be right about is this: if the LZR or any other suit released since then survives this summer, so should the X-Glide, and thus not to approve Bernard's time would place more weight on that side of the scales that reads "unfair". Just as unfair as it has been for the world record holders of 2008 to see their standards taken down with the assistance of suits that rendered the sport they had known obsolete.

The French sports paper carries the news alongside its front page banner: under the headline Bernard Titanesque, it notes: Dressed in his new suit, not yet approved, the Olympic champion .... to an exploit beyond in a world of madness.

Inside, a two page-spread is led by a banner declaring simply "Another World". No need for the word record. Alongside the coverage is another comment from Benoit Lallement. The wold of swimming falls between two stools, he notes: on the one side is a world that makes a mockery of ethics in sport and on the other is the joy of seeing a champion suspend time.

Only clear lines of governance that protect the sport and the swimmers can save swimming from further descent into chaos and damage reflected in the bad publicity that now ripples well, well beyond this column the world over.

Meanwhile, a calmer morning at French nationals in Montpellier: 

Clément Lefert, Nice, led the 100m butterfly qualifiers in 52.17, a best time by 1.06sec if you go back a month and 2.23 if you go back two months. That racey progression placed him ahead of Rafa Munoz (ESP), limbering up with a 52.24 after that 50.58 at Spanish nationals this month that drew him level with Michael Phelps at his best on the clock (so far). Behind them, Francois Heersbrandt, Toulouse and BEL, 52.71 (up a touch on the 52.83 best from a year ago) and South African Darian Townsend, racing for Lagardere Paris, on 52.84, compared to a best of 52.14 at this month's nationals back home and a lifetime best before those nationals of 54.96 from 2007. In the 200m backstroke heats, Pierre Roger, French clubmate of Townsend's in Paris, shaved 0.2sec off his 2008 championship record with a 1:58.22 effort, to go through to semis at the helm.