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Two Sets Of World Records From Jan 1?

Nov 19, 2009  - Craig Lord

A version of this article appears in The Times, London, today.

The FINA Coaches Commission has recommended to the ruling Bureau of the federation that it adopts two sets of world records from January 1, 2010: the shiny suit world records would remain on the books, while a World Textile Mark would stand to anyone who gets past the world records that stood on January 1, 2008, SwimNews has learned. Start lists and result sheets would record the two standards.

In the past 22 months since the launch of the Speedo LZR Racer gave rise to suit wars among manufacturers keen to share the financial rewards of being able to charge £350 and upwards per race suit (some with a limited shelf life of several wears) more than 234 world records have fallen. The regularity of record breaking and the tidal wave of shiny-suit standards that have flooded the world rankings like never before (in some events more than  70% of all top 300 all-time swims are from 2008-09) has made a mockery of the sport.

 Leading coaches worldwide led calls from within the sport to have the shiny suits banned and noted that swimmers were achieving success and podium places at the biggest of meets without having put in as much work, particularly core strength and endurance work as previous generations did. 

  From New Year's Day, the shiny suits issue will be sunk when new "textile-only" rules come into force, but the dilemma of what to do about world records and times that are off-the-chart remains. Coaches, swimmers, suit makers, who include world-record bonuses in their contracts, event organisers and those offering television rights now fear that swimming will witness very few world records for the foreseeable future. 

Some records could stand for more than a decade: the women's 200m medley record stands to Ariana Kukors, of the USA, at 2mins 06.15. In a textile suit, only one woman has ever dipped below 2mins 10, and Wu Yanyan, of China, was subsequently banned for taking steroids. Some world titles and medals in Rome were won by swimmers who improved between 6 and 9sec over 200m in one season. That's something that not even Wu Yanyan and many of her companions on the list of the suspended could manage. 

Some medal winners arrived on the podium from a place outside the top 100 in the world the previous season. The all-time top 25 times across all Olympic events are flooded with between 15 and 23 efforts from 2008-09, a fact that shows the massive gulf between the equipment-based sport of the shiny suit era and the real sport of swimming that took place before 2008 and will be revived in 2010.

If the proposal of coaches wins the day,  event organisers and suit makers are likely to offer two levels of world-record bonuses: one for those who get past the world record as it stood on January 1, 2008, and another for those who swim into the future and wipe out the need for to highlight suit-assisted performances.

The coach commission recommendation is well-meaning. It misses the mark, however, on a couple of important levels:

  • Rather than singling out the shiny suit marks that are problematic under new rules and live in a very small window of swimming history, FINA would be singling out swimmers wearing textile suits, and doing so in a way that indicates to the public that their "mark" is somehow less important or worthy than the "record". That would mean less perceived worth to the wider world beyond the sport of swimming for swims that set "genuine" world records - ie., records set off the swimmer's own steam and work alone and not relying at all on a suit that clearly boosted their performance significantly and did so in a way that may not have applied in equal measure to rivals, depending on physiology and morphology. If one set of times ought to be singled out, surely it should be those of 2008-09, because they do not reflect race conditions before 2008 nor after 2009.
  • FINA and the sport at large would be dragging the baggage of the past two years with it into the future. Not a good idea. If start sheets list a "world record" as the shiny suit mark, and the "World Textile Mark" as the best genuine swim ever seen, how does the reporter report events? Some will simply call the new mark a world record and ignore the silly times of 2008-09, some will continue to spin the lie that the shiny suit times can be compared to what went before in the sport and what follows from January 1, 2010, many will feel obliged to explain the events of 2008-09 time and again every time a genuine "swim", - as opposed to a genuine "swim in a suit that helps significantly" - ought to be celebrated.

 Some would like to see a line drawn in the record books that honours all shiny suit times set legally in 2008 and 2009 and does what coaches are suggesting, but without the need for parallel sets of records: anyone who gets past a world record that stood on January 1, 2008 would be the next world record holder, without reference to the high-tech era every time there is something to celebrate. There is precedent: in the 1950s, FINA ruled that world records may only be established in pools 50m long. For a while, some records got slower (than those set in 20-yard pools, for example) before they got faster again.

A couple of examples of how it would look in the FINA record book:

Men 200m backstroke progression:

  • 1:54.32 Ryan Lochte (USA) March 30, 2007 Melbourne, Australia
  • January 1, 2008: non-textile suits allowed
  • 1:54.32e Aaron Peirsol (USA) July 4, 2008 Omaha, Nebraska, USA
  • 1:53.94 Ryan Lochte (USA) August 15, 2008 Beijing, China
  • 1:53.08 Aaron Peirsol (USA) July 11, 2009 Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
  • 1:51.92 Aaron Peirsol (USA) July 31, 2009 Rome, Italy
  • January 1, 2010: new textile-only suit rules, with profile limits
  • 1:54.10         Ryan Lochte  (USA)   February 1, 2010  Theoryville, USA

Women 200m backstroke progression:

  • 2:06.62 Krisztina Egerszegi (HUN) August 25, 1991 Athens, Greece
  • January 1, 2008: non-textile suits allowed
  • 2:06.39 Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) February 16, 2008 Columbia, Missouri, US
  • 2:06.09 Margaret Hoelzer (USA) July 5, 2008 Omaha, Nebraska, USA
  • 2:05.24 Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) August 16, 2008 Beijing, China
  • January 1, 2010: new textile-only suit rules, with profile limits
  • 2:06.60  Kirsty Coventry (ZIM)  June 2, 2010   Theoryville, USA

The 2010 times above are, of course, fictitious and used for explanation purposes only

The FINA Bureau will discuss the matter of world records at its January meeting. It will also consider whether to recommend to the International Olympic Committee to scrap from its swimming schedule the 800m freestyle for women. The Coaches Commission has reccommended that the 800m is dropped and that women race 1,500m from 2012, thereby equalising the programme for men and women at the Games for the first time in history.

 The timing is not good for the host nation in 2012: double champion of 2008, Rebecca Adlington, would be deprived of defending one of her crowns at a home Games. At FINA world championships, both 800m and 1,500m are swum by men and women and the international federation has been keen to see that model transfered to the Olympic pool - but the IOC is opposed to adding more events to its hectic schedule. 

   Adlington's 800m world record of 8mins 14.10sec would be one of those, alongside 14 of 37 global standards set by Michael Phelps, that could find itself in the company of a world textile mark. Bob Bowman, coach to Phelps, said in Rome that he would be happy to see all shiny suit records set aside and isolated for what they were.