By Phillip Whitten
ATHENS, August 17. TWO days ago, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima took the gold in a very close 100-meter breaststroke race with American Brendan Hansen, the world record-holder, fulfilling a promise he had made to his countrymen and –women.
It was a poignant moment in the daily drama that adds spice to the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
But it was spoiled because of the way Kitajima won. Simply put, he cheated.
What made it worse is that officials – stroke judges, start and turn judges – let him get away with it.
Kitajima used a powerful – and illegal – underwater dolphin kick on the start and turn, turbo-charging his underwater action and giving him a grossly unfair advantage over his competitors.
This is NOT just my opinion. It is not a close call or a matter of interpretation.
It is a fact!
Captured by underwater cameras perfectly positioned, it is a fact that was plainly visible to literally hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.
If a swimmer were to do that same kick in an age-group, high school, USA Swimming or US Masters Swimming meet, he or she would be disqualified –even if the dolphin movement were inadvertent and provided little propulsion
To be fair, it wasn’t so easy to see what was going on underwater from the over-the-water vantage points of the officials, and FINA rules do not provide for the use of underwater cameras. But the officials should have been prepared. Kitajima’s habit of using a powerful underwater dolphin kick was duly noted and documented last year at the World Championships, where he won double gold and set two world records.
Kitajima’s dolphin kicks won the race in Athens, and they cost Brendan Hansen the fulfillment of his lifelong dream. Hansen is too classy a young man to complain, but his teammate, Aaron Peirsol, who was watching the race on TV while awaiting his own semifinal heat of the 100 meter backstroke, was justifiably quick to speak out.
Peirsol was characteristically blunt: “I feel pretty angry about Brendan's swim. I'm not afraid to say that either,” he said. “That's his (gold) medal. Not Kitajima's.”
This is by no means the first such incident at the Olympic Games. I recall in 1996 that underwater cameras clearly showed Russia’s Denis Pankratov sculling in the front phase of his arm stroke in the 200 fly. Four years ago in Sydney, a female breaststroker who is also competing in Athens, used powerful, deliberate dolphin kicks on her breaststroke start and turns.
The same thing is true at the NCAAs, where top-ranked swimmers sometimes take advantage of the rules with impunity.
Clearly, rules are meant to create fairness in competition and must be enforced. If an 8 year-old age-grouper or an 80 year-old Masters swimmer can be DQ’ed for dolphining off the start and turns, so too must Olympic competitors.
After the 100-meter breaststroke race was shown on TV in the US, SwimInfo was inundated with e-mails from outraged viewers. Here is a representative sample of these letters:
“Am I imagining things, [or] does Katajima do a really fast butterfly kickoff the breaststroke start and turn? It certainly looked that way in the underwater TV shots from the prelims and finals.”
— David Lederman
Department of Physics
West Virginia University
Morgantown, WV 26506-6315
“I am thoroughly disgusted by the three underwater dolphin kicks that Mr. Kitajima used to propel himself to victory in the 100m breaststroke final today. Two small kicks off the start to minimize the chance of being DQ'ed then followed by one at the 50 turn. His gold medal swim will be forever tarnished in the mind of this observer.
“I am saddened that the rest of the field was disadvantaged by Mr. Kitajima's antics. The position of the stroke and turn judges does not adequately allow for the viewing of these underwater infractions.
“I think there is only one solution. Underwater cameras set up to view all of the competitors at the start and turn should become mandatory. In the NFL and NHL, cameras are used to review certain plays. The same can and should occur in swimming, particularly at this international level of competition.
“It is now the time to start lobbying for change, so that this unfairness doesn't repeat itself in Beijing. I will be writing to SNC officials in Canada to hopefully initiate a change for the better.”
— Rob Davis
“I believe that something needs to be done about the completely illegal but hard to spot dolphin kicks that some breastrokers use to get ahead, or even to perhaps win Olympic gold medals.
“We have stood idly by while people cheat in this manner for too long. If FINA would simply put an official by an underwater camera, …it would solve the problem.
“No one intentionally kicks 20 meters off the walls because they know they'll get caught, but people keep dolphin kicking during the pullouts because it’s hard to identify and apparently too risky for an official to call. “This could have potentially cost Brendan Hansen the gold medal at these Olympics, but more importantly it has made things unfair. Swiminfo could help greatly to get something done about this cheating.”
— Wade Kelley
“I am an avid swimming fan, and in every big race (Worlds, NCAAs, Pan Pacs) there are always several top swimmers who fly kick in breaststroke.
“Why in the world doesn't FINA have an official watch the underwater camera? It would be so easy to do and no one would ever try [cheating this way] again.
“Why does FINA try to be traditional, and TRY to have flaws in their system? I mean, they used to use hand stop watches to time the Olympics. So should we continue to use hand watches since they are faster and older, even if touch pads are exact?
“After the Olympics, USA Swimming ought to boycott FINA until they institute an underwater camera. There is no reason not to use an underwater camera except to allow people to get away with cheating.
“Even if Kitajima gets heat for doing such a blatant fly kick, that still doesn't even scratch the surface of the thousands of other people who fly kick off walls in breaststroke races, [swimmers who] Brendan Hansen beat.
“While Aaron Perisol makes all valid points in his interviews about the 100 breaststroke, the flaw is that if Brendan had won, no one would be saying anything about the fly kick, or about the many swimmers in the Olympics who did fly kick in breaststroke or the swimmers who used it to qualify for their Olympic teams.
“No one intentionally kicks 25 meters underwater in a backstroke race, because they know they will be disqualified. But officials are too afraid to disqualify someone for a fly kick on a breaststroke pull out since it is hard to see … beneath the surface. [Since] officials are so reluctant to call it, swimmers are almost forced to use the fly kick just to keep up with other swimmers who are doing it, ethical or not.
“I believe Swiminfo.com could do a lot to help solve this problem, and make the sport of swimming that much more clean and fair.”
— Will Sarosdy
There are some excellent, perceptive points in these and other letters.
In our complex times, it is often pointed out that some problems are so difficult they do not have solutions.
This is not one of them.
As several readers suggested, the solution is for FINA and the IOC to use underwater cameras to observe the breaststroke pullout from under the water, to station officials in front of the monitor for these cameras, and to enforce the rules rigorously and fairly.
That’s not too much to ask.