By Phillip Whitten
LAUSANNE, Switzerland, Nov. 13. IN a surprise announcement today, FINA, swimming's international governing body, announced it would award gold medals to the USA women's 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay team that was disqualified at the World Championships in Fukuoka last July.
However, in a statement that definitely requires clarification, FINA also said "the decision will not affect the official results of the women's 4 x 200 metres freestyle relay final." In that race, Britain, the third-place finisher, was awarded the gold after the first place Australians and second place Americans were disqualified.
The Australians were disqualified because Petria Thomas, one of their swimmers, jumped into the pool to celebrate her team's victory before Italy, the last team, had finished the race.
The Americans were disqualified because their second swimmer, Cristina Teuscher, was recorded as having left the starting block 0.06 seconds before lead-off swimmer Natalie Coughlin had touched. Under FINA rules, there is a margin of error of .03 seconds.
The U.S. team protested that the touchpad at the end of the lane was faulty and initially their time was reinstated, making them champions. The next day, however, a FINA jury reversed that decision, leaving the Brits with the gold.
There were, in fact, numerous other problems with the electronic timing system at Fukuoka, and US National Team Director Dennis Pursley threatened to appeal the relay decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne.
Today, Pursley, speaking from his office in Colorado Springs applauded FINA's decision. "It's wonderful the girls will be receiving the medals they deserve. We appreciate FINA's willingness to continue to look at the evidence, which suggested that the US team in fact earned the gold medal."
Meeting in Bangkok, FINA said: ""To avoid any reasonable doubt regarding the result of the women's relay 4x200m freestyle final of the 10th FINA world swimming championships in Fukuoka but without unfairly changing the official results of the race, the Bureau decided to grant a second set of gold medals to the USA team."
"It was also decided that films used in video back-up systems, which have recorded results and take-offs in relay races, shall be stored for possible review at least six months after the end of the event before being erased."
FINA's decision, however, left several questions unanswered: Will the USA relay's time be reinstated? Or, will the US relay receive the same time as the lower British team? An American record rides on the resolution of those questions.
What does it mean when FINA says "…without unfairly changing the official results of the race."? If the US team is disqualified, which they are if the official results of the race are not changed, then why give them medals? If they're not disqualified, then are they co-champions with the Brits? These, and similar questions, need to be clarified.