By Craig Lord
FUKUOKA, Japan. July 27. FIRST the US women's 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay lost a gold (or silver, depending on your point of view) medal when the automatic timing device indicated Cristina Teuscher had left some 3-hundredths of a second earlier than
allowable in the relay exchange – a judgment apparently contradicted by videotapes of the exchange.
Then it appeared that Anthony Ervin would not be awarded the gold medal he clearly had won in the 100 meter freestyle when a "1" popped up on the scoreboard next to Pieter van den Hoogenband's name. That error was later corrected.
Then, today, doubts were cast on the decision to award Great Britain the world 4 x 200m freestyle relay title today when German lodged and then withdrew a protest
over an electronic timepad reading that showed that one Australian swimmer had landed on the head of another in the 4 x 200m relay for men, when that
clearly was not the case.
While the protest lodged by Germany and supported by Britain and the United States is unlikely to change the result in the women's relay – at least, not immediately – the use of film footage to convince the Germans to withdraw could.
The Jury of Appeal that heard the British protest chose, as it may according to the rules, not to view film footage to help it to deliberate. That precendent is now perceived to have been broken in the case of the
German protest just a day later – which may help the United States should it take its case to the Court of Arbitration in Lausanne, as National Team Director Denny Pursley has indicated he is considsering doing.
The use of the video footage in the German v Australia case also served to highlight one thing: what the timing system in the Marine Messe pool could not prove, broadcast images could. The inevitable conclusion is that there a problem with the Seiko timing in Fukuoka, and it is one that potentially casts doubts on every result at the world championships, including the three world records set by Ian Thorpe.
Speaking on the phone from the water-polo final being held at another pool across the city, Cornel Marculescu, Director of FINA, the international governing body for swimming, said after the Germans announced the withdrawal of their protest: "That is the end of the road. We have no doubts whatsoever about our timing. Perhaps the touch (of the swimmer) is
What neither he nor, indeed, the Australians and Germans were able to explain was why the electronic timing pad in lane 4 of the morning heats had shown that William Kirby, the last of the Australian quartet to race, had left the starting blocks 0.97 seconds before Raymond Haas, had reached the wall at the end of his race, the third leg of the relay.
Given the speed that a male 200m swimmer travels, had Kirby left his blocks with Haas still a second from the wall there would have been a strong chance of collision. Certainly the early break would have easily
been visible to the naked eyes of every single person in the Marine Messe pool. As such, officials simply changed the result to an allowable takeover. Germany said that it should not be possible to simply change a
result arbitrarily and that the timing system had shown a negative result for the Australian quartet.
In fact, video footage shot by Australia's Channel 9 and photographs taken by News Limited lensmen proved conclusively that all three takeovers by the Australian relay were sound. All good news for Australia, who are Olympic champions and whose world record in the finals ensured a fifth world title for Ian Thorpe, a tally that equals the best ever achieved by a man, namely American Jim Montgomery in 1973.
Asked what the difference was between the German position and that of the United States a day earlier when its women's disqualification was upheld, John Devitt, President of Australian Swimming Inc, said:
"The only difference appears to be that the United States was disqualified at the time and we (Australia) were not."
There were in fact other differences. The United States did not protest after it appealed to officials on the poolside to have its disqualification for a takeover executed 0.06sec too early, 0.03sec outside the permissible level, overturned. Officials on the poolside simply scratched a pen mark through the reading of 0.06sec and exchanged it for one that read 0.01sec, inside the allowable range. It was that overturning of a disqualification that was the subject of protest, from Britain and Japan, supported by
Britain asserted that once an official time has been confirmed – as Britain's was during that short period before the US's disqualification was overturned by poolside officials – it cannot be changed for any other
reason that rule infringements, such as false starts, positive drugs tests and so forth.
A request by the media assembled at the World Championships for an interview with FINA and representatives from Seiko fell on deaf ears. Asked
where Marculescu was after the German decision to withdraw its protest, his ill-tempered secretary said: "Leave him alone for an hour – he's at the
Ultimately, if FINA does not want these championships tainted by a suspect timing system, it needs to come clean about why there have been dozens of appeals against results over the course of this week.
Possible causes of any problem – should there be one at all – are a timing system that does not work as it should in a temporary pool such as the one constructed on scaffolding at the Marine Messe, a general concert
hall at other times, and the sensitivity of the pads aloft the starting blocks that register starts. All may be well but the number of irregularities in Fukuoka suggests a problem – and FINA's silence on the
matter does nothing to help.
Meanwhile, "the spirit of sport is alive", said John Devitt after he had shaken hands with his opposite number from Germany, Christa Thiel. Asked if he thought that the cooperation of Australia and Germany had taken the decision on the matter away from FINA, Devitt, the 1960 Olympic champion over 100m freestyle for Australia in another controversial decision, said: "We decided that in the friendship of sport we would discuss the matter."