Coach Forbes Carlile: Two Swimming Rules that Need Changing

This article is by legendary Australian coach Forbes Carlile. SwimInfo invites you to send us your reactions to the rule changes Carlile advocates. Email your comments to Editors at SwimInfo

By Forbes Carlile

My premise is that there should be no rules in the sport of swimming that are not consistently and fairly applied. By these criteria, two rules stand out as demanding change, although it could be more painful than pulling teeth getting FINA to change two long- standing rules that are a blight on competitive swimming.

One relates to backstroke turning and the other governs the underwater stroke in breaststroke at the start and after the turns.

The Backstroke Turn
First the backstroke turn. When it was decided in principle that backstroke would follow freestyle in not requiring the wall to be touched with the hand in turning, the problem FINA faced was that in backstroke the swimmer could not be permitted to legally swim part of the race kicking along on the front, even though this could not reasonably be expected to be faster than swimming on the back.

FINA believed it had solved the problem by deciding on the current rule – that if a swimmer turns on to the front to turn and is judged to have kicked or glided when not in the process of making the turning movement, then disqualification must follow. Unlike the other styles, where the swimmer may kick or glide to shorten the distance from the wall, in backstroke this is "no go."

What is wrong with this? Two things.

1. Disqualification is too heavy a penalty for misjudging the distance from the wall and the commencement of the turning movement by being on the front too early. This is a mistake often seen in young swimmers.
2. Stroke judges very clearly find it difficult to judge, although many will tell you it is "no problem" for them to decide, even with swimmers moving fast, whether the movement onto the front "is part of a continuous turning movement" and whether there is any pause accompanied by a glide into the wall.

But how often do backstrokers display a very definite delay in the turning movement whilst face down and kicking? A few are DQed; many are not This is a gray area.

As long ago as 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics, my underwater analysis of the leading swimmers at the first and third turns in the 200m men’s backstroke indicated clearly that the rule was broken by several of the leading swimmers,including medal winners. Unlike 10 year olds in an age group meet, there were no disqualifications. I sent video copies of slow-motion underwater analyses to the members of the FINA Technical Committee, but no action was taken.

A close examination of video replays of swimmers in international events indicates that stroke judges continue to have difficulty. They are inconsistent. Often swimmers with a glaring glide on the front towards the wall, clearly not combined with any concurrent "turning action," escape without the rule being applied. It is difficult at normal speed from an above-water view for anybody to say with certainty what has happened and it is not fair that the critical, eagle-eye of one stroke judge may recommend a DQ when another swimmer, with a similar action, gets away with a more liberal interpretation or with a confused or a "blind- eyed" official.

The solution? The turning rule should be changed so that once the swimmer's head reaches the 5 meter rope, he or she should be permitted to turn from the back and kick or glide towards the wall whilst in the prone position.

It cannot reasonably be argued that swimmers will deliberately turn early on to the front 5 meters out, as they would then only slow down their progress in reaching the wall. FINA was willing to change the backstroke rule to permit the no-touch turn from the prone position, so philosophically there is no good reason for not allowing the swimmer to come off the back anywhere up to a maximum of 5m from the wall if the rule contributes to easier and fairer refereeing and saves unnecessary heartache.

The Breaststroke
For years, until the rule was belatedly changed, swimming competitions were plagued by stroke judges squatting on the pool deck with eyes close to water level to be sure breaststrokers were not dipping the top of their heads under water.

With the so-obvious rule change requiring the head only once in the stroke cycle to be above water (it had to be up in order for the swimmer to breathe), it no longer became necessary for swimmers to stuff the tops of their caps to keep them above the water line continually as the rule then demanded.

Now the time is overdue for another change in the breaststroke rule, applying the principle that if it is difficult to be sure a rule is applied consistently to all swimmers, where possible, that rule should be changed.

How often during underwater sequences of turns in telecasts can swimmers be seen to make very strong dolphin kicks under water, gain an advantage, yet escape disqualification?

There is a history now of unmistakable dolphin kicks being strongly applied without sanction by swimmers in international competition, including a medalist at the Sydney Olympics and again in a semifinal, by an eventual medal winner at the Barcelona World Championships.

Of course, the whole underwater stroke of more than one or two competitors is pictured only infrequently on TV, but you do not have to look for long to spot unmistakable, very definite, propulsive dolphin kicks — not merely gentle movements following undulation of the trunk due to the arm pull, which actions are penalized very infrequently.

Radical as it may sound, the solution to this potentially unfair situation where some swimmers are DQed and the lucky ones escape with a slightly improved time, is for FINA to change the rule and permit all competitors to make one dolphin kick underwater at the start and turns.

In a TV interview from Barcelona, I heard a prominent medley swimmer at the World Championships say that he had made his time in domestic competition with the help of a couple of illegal (I think he said "sneaky") kicks in the breaststroke leg.

The remedy to having rules that many swimming people know are difficult to apply equally to all swimmers is for FINA to bite the bullet and, where possible, make modifications to these rules to ensure greater fairness.

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