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Backstroke Aces Campaign For Standard Block

Jan 11, 2010  - Craig Lord

Britain's Liam Tancock and fellow world champion Aaron Peirsol, of the US, have called for swimming bosses to adopt a standardised starting block for backstroke specialists who have been discriminated against these past two years.

Serving as spokesmen for concerned leading backstroke specialist the world over, the two men note that they have faced a variety of unfamiliar equipment on arrival at big international events, including the Olympic Games and World Championships, in 2008 and 2009.

In a campaign to secure better conditions for backstroke swimmers, they have also urged Fina, the international federation, and equipment makers to ensure that world-class athletes are consulted when it comes to developing the equipment that they will have to use come race day.

Tancock, 24, today reveals for the first time the silent struggle that he and other world-class backstroke swimmers have endured. He told The Times and SwimNews: "When I got to Beijing for the Games last year, I was shocked. I thought 'they've got to be kidding'." In place of the traditional vertical bar for backstroke specialists that runs in the middle of the frame below the starting platform from which specialists on other strokes dive, a new Omega block sported two vertical bars, one much higher and one much lower than normal, and two horizontal bars that were "too wide".

As Tancock put it: "The normal bar would have been somewhere in the middle of all of that." Three days out from the biggest competition in a swimmer's life, Loughborough University coach Ben Titley found that Tancock, a medal hope, was 0.5sec slower in the first 15m off the new block than usual. 

Ironically, the very thing that the new blocks had been designed - a wedge for the foot at the back of the starting platform that would allow swimmers to propel themselves off the block in a manner more familiar to track athletes - was removed before racing because of complaints that not enough blocks had been made for many of the world's best swimmers to have had a chance to practice with the new equipment before the Games in Beijing. 

However, no-one considered the impact of an altered block on backstroke swimmers. Instead of spending the next three days fine-tuning in the relaxed atmosphere of a pool away from the main competition venue - an approach later cited by teammate Rebecca Adlington as having been critical to her twin victories on freestyle in Beijing - Tancock endured several sessions in the busy race pool trying to get to grips, literally, with a starting position that he had "never seen before and never used before in my life".  Tancock finished 6th in a tight Olympic final in Beijing, missing a medal by 0.21sec.

Back home in Loughborough, Tancock and Titley sprang into action. “Ben managed to get the dimensions of the real blocks and at massive expense, we had a special frame made up so I could practice with the right equipment at Loughborough,” said Tancock.

Even then, there were different models of the new block. "One Omega bar ... has not been ergonomically designed ... it’s too thick, you can't get your hand on the horizontal bars so you have to use the vertical bars - and they’re too wide," said Tancock, who believed that “they haven’t got their research right. It looks like a block designed by someone who doesn’t know backstroke or by a computer. They need to work with athletes."

Tancock emphasised: "This is not about attacking anyone. It’s about getting it right for the future. It’s about saying to Fina, Omega and others: ‘look, you’re designing things for the world’s best swimmers - why not get those swimmers to help you?"

He and Peirsol would like to see a moveable bar that could be adjusted to the needs and dimensions of swimmers ranging from 5ft 6in to 6ft 8in. “The least we want is standardised equipment so that we know what we face at the start of every season - we need consistency,” said Tancock.

A year on from Beijing, FINA upheld its ban on the track-start wedge for the same reason: not enough had had access to the blocks to train with them. Again, backstrokers were overlooked. After asking officials at British Swimming "100 times and more" if they could tell him which block would be used at the world championships in Rome last July, Tancock, on holding camp in Sardinia, called a team official already at the world championships venue and asked for a photo of the blocks to be sent to him by e-mail. Forward thinking helped and Tancock finished fourth in the 100m, just 0.09sec from a medal and became world champion over 50m five days later.

He talked to Peirsol at the Duel in the Pool dinner in Manchester last month, alongside American Matt Grevers ( a man who stands 6ft 8in tall and may well find the width of bars less of a problem than many of the women backstroke specialists who stand 5ft 6 to 5ft 9in tall, for example). Peirsol was appointed to the Athletes’ Commission of Fina last July and raised the issue at his first meeting. Nothing has yet come of it.

As Tancock stated: “This is not about attacking anyone. It’s about getting it right for the future. It’s about saying to Fina, Omega and others: ‘look, you’re designing things for the world’s best swimmers - why not get those swimmers to help you?" He thought it was also in the interests of coaches to join the drive for change.

Few would disagree that world-class athletes ought to be consulted about the equipment that they must use come the big day, and get to practice with it month in and month out. That is the case with swimwear, of course, and Tancock was among those who has helped Speedo design a variety of equipment. Arena and adidas, among others, work closely with athletes. Ultimately, it is then for FINA to agree on what constitutes standardisation and fairness. A lesson that the international federation has recently relearned via shiny suit wars 101 years after that position was adopted as a cornerstone of a new international sports federation. 

A version of this article appears in The Times newspaper today.