By Craig Lord
FUKUOKA,Japan. July 26. THE race was a barn-burner right from the start, with the top three teams going stroke-for-stroke, head-to-head, mano-a-mano for 16 frothy laps.
As the anchors reach for the wall, the scoreboard lit up:
AUSTRALIA first 7:56.00
USA second 7:56.53
BRITAIN third 7:58.69
All three were national records. The Aussies had broken the World Championship record set by the infamous Chinese team of 1994 at 7:57.96, and just missed the world mark of 7:55.47 set by the East Germans, another steroid-fueled squad way back in 1987.
The Americans hadn't done badly. Swimming without their anchor, Lindsay Benko, they had broken the national record set in winning the gold in Sydney last year. And Britain had obliterated its national mark.
AND THEN, ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE!
By the time, the four members of the British team had gone to bed last night, they'd been officially declared the winners and they looked forward to clutching the first gold medals ever won by British women in the history of the World Swimming Championships the next day.
Instead they were left sleepless in Fukuoka as protagonists in a drama of farcical proportions: never before in swimming has a world title race been swum, the result announced, changed four times in the space of 15 minutes and then suspended until the next day pending a decision on three protests.
Pandemonium spilled out of the pool almost from the moment three of the Australian quartet who stopped the clock first leaped into the water to celebrate their victory and a championship record by a stroke over the United States, and almost a body length over Britain, with Germany and Japan locked out of the medals.
As the swimmers were coralled into the gauntlet of TV camera crews, a cry of "foul" went up in the US camp as the scoreboard flickered to demote the Americans to "DQ" status (for disqualified) because Cristina Teuscher had jumped six-hundredths of a second too early as Natalie Coughlin came in to finish the
FINA rules allow a margin of equipment error of only 3-hundredths of a second – which, in itself, raises serious questions about the accuracy of race results that are decidedd by 3-hundredths of a second or less (a subject no one has wanted to broach publicly). When Teuscher left the block 6-hundrdths of a second before Coughlin touched the pad at the end of her leg, she had taken off some 3-hundredths of a second sooner than allowable under FINA rules.
"We've got the silver," screamed Karen Pickering, of Britain. "No, its the gold," said another, as Australians sank to the depths of despair upon learning that, in their enthusiam, they had broken another rule by jumping into the water to celebrate victory before the last team, Italy, had finished racing. This should not have been news to the Aussies as the rule has been in force for many years.
By now, the scoreboard was showing the Brits, who had touched the wall third, in the top spot – a position they had never before occupied in the 28 years of World Championship competition.
By 8:07 pm, the official result sheet was published confirming the historic moment and a British record of 7:58.69, a huge improvement of 4.27 seconds. Overjoyed, the British quartet handed out pictures of themselvesd dressed as geishas before stating: "We would have wanted to win a different way – you want to touch the wall first and remember how that feels. But we've worked hard, we've annihilated the British record and we've got the gold – it feels great."
But no sooner had she caught her breath than it was all changed. Australian officials, spearheaded by a volcanic Don Talbot, the head coach, invaded the referees' bench and an almighty screaming match errupted on accusations of American bias as the US team was suddenly reinstated to the top spot. Talbot described the fiasco as a "comedy of errors – what we'd call a Kangaroo court in Australia", as he stamped his fist on the table accusing the Ukrainian
referee, Andrei Volskov, of unilaterally deciding Australia's fate without consulting fellow officials, something he's not obliged to do under the rules.
Meanwhile, the finger of suspicion pointed at Carol Zaleski, former four-term president of USA Swimming who sits of the technical committee of FINA, despite the fact that she has no technical background. It turns out that Zaleski had shown Volskov a video replay that supposedly proved the time pad was wrong and the naked eye right.
With that evidence in hand, Volskov overuled the electronic time pad that had proved the Americans had
infringed the takeover rule.
"Its a bloody circus," said Bill Sweetenham, Britain's national performance director, as he lodged a protest complaining once an official result has been confirmed, it cannot be changed under FINA rules. He
also stated that the time pad should never have been overuled because the video evidence was inconclusive.
"Everyone who saw it agrees – it cannot be used to overide the timing." Further, Sweetenham, an Australian and a long-time friend of Talbot's, said that if the time pad had been faulty then "every result in that lane and on this side of the pool is in doubt".
Australians agreed with that theory claiming that two of their backstroke swimmers had suffered as a consequence of dubious times against their names in lane 6, in which the US relay had raced. Talbot complained that his women had been encouraged by a Japanese camera crew to jump in the water at the end of the race to make better pictures. That, of course, does not let Australia off the hook.
Germany, which stands to win the silver medal, supported Britain's position that once an official result is announced, there is no going back. Japan, which stands to gain or lose the bronze medal, lodged a similarly worded protest.
The United States did not even lodge a protest, beleiving that its purpose had been served by the video feedback that Sweetenham now says is so
Cornel Marculescu, Director of FINA, confirmed that a jury of appeal hearing made up of members of the ruling Bureau of the international governing body, would sit in judgement this morning and that medals would be awarded this afternoon.
Marculescu explained that there could not be an earlier meeting because there were not enough FINA Bureau members still in the building, many of them already having left for the bars and restaurants of downtown Fukuoka, while others were sipping wine at a reception.
Asked how many Swiss francs – the official currency of protest in swimming – had changed hands, Marculescu joked: "As many as possible." In fact each team lodged 100 Swiss francs each for their protests.
Meanwhile, an eerie silence fell over the pool by the time two Japanese technicians quietly walked on to the poolside at a little before 9:30 pm last night and removed the electronic time pad from lane 6 only to replace it with a new, but identical one. If anyone is wondering, the suspicious equipment is now at the starting end of the pool in the outside "lane 9",
used as an empty "wash" lane in competitition and by swimmers only in the warm-up.
Bill Sweetenham argued that if FINA failed to acknowledge the official result of the 4 x 200m freestyle, which gave victory to Britain after Australia and the United States were disqualified, then they might as well rip the rule book up.
"Look, if they let Australia back in, then they're saying that it's acceptable to have people jumping in the water after racing a relay even if the other teams haven't finished racing," said Sweetenham. "And if they let the United States back in then they're saying that the electronic pad in lane six wasn't working, and that every result at the championships in that
lane should be reviewed."
FINA was due to meet this morning to deliberate on three protests, one from Australia, one from Britain, backed by Germany, and the other by Japan.
Had Australia's result stood, in a time of 7:56.00, it would have been a championship record and just shy of the world record held by East Germany since 1987. The US too would have broken its own national record.
"The bottom line is – you can't change an official result," said Sweetenham. "I've just been into the room to watch the playback of the video they wanted to use to prove the electronic time pad in that lane
(lane 6) didn't register when the swimmer first touched. I'm telling you, there is no way that that video shows what they want it to show. It is
While Sweetenham took a line of firm but polite persuasion, his opposite number from Australia took the more aggressive stance. His intimidation of officials when arguing Australia's case has worked in the past but while Talbot said that "there's no proof that the girls jumped in the water before the end of the race", Sweetenham, conscious of myriad cameras focussed on the end of the race, said: "There's loads of footage of it. The proof's on film.
Two of the British team affected, Pickering and Jackson, were back in action in the heats of the individual 200 meters freestyle this morning, a
corner of their minds doubtless on which position they will occupy on the medal podium later in the day. If the confirmed result stands, it will be an historic gold. If the US is reinstated, it will be silver and if Australia is reinstated it will be the bronze.
"We want the gold – the result should stand," said Sweetenham. "But whatever color we end up with I'm delighted with our women. They stood up and did a terrific job out there today."