In My Mind: Let’s Bring Breaststroke Back to Its Roots

Column by Nathan Jendrick

SEATTLE, Washington, September 10. DURING the years we have seen several rule changes that have been put into place–whether we all agree with them or not–to protect the sanctity of our sport.

When backstroke swimmers were dolphin kicking their way to victory rather than backstroke swimming their way, the 15-meter rule was put into place. When swimmers came out of nowhere and dropped massive amounts of time once they put on a rubber “techsuit” those too were taken away.

In the same sense of protecting swimming, in 2005 the rules were changed to allow a dolphin kick as part of a breaststroke pullout. This was done because it was widely acknowledged the best breaststroke swimmer in the world at that time–Kosuke Kitajima–was doing just such a thing and no one was able to catch him because referees couldn't see it from above water. In turn, all swimmers were allowed to do this one kick. And then, as such things happen, many swimmers continued to push the envelope to get an edge.

This kind of effort has been taken to the highest ranks: the Olympic Games. 100-meter breaststroke champion Cameron van der Burgh admitted to adding illegal extra kicks en route to his Olympic crown; effectively cheating his way to glory.

The one benefit from van der Burgh's cheating confession is that it finally puts underwater video review on the docket for serious consideration; something that has largely been missing from the sport and very much needed. While there have been requests for this feature for years, the conversation has been ratcheted up for quite some time; particularly since Otylia Jedrzejczak's one-hand touch en route to 200-meter butterfly gold in 2005 at the World Championships.

But there's another opportunity here that sport (or at least breaststroke) purists can appreciate: If underwater video review finds its way to the competition pool, it also brings back the very real possibility of breaststroke returning to its roots by removing the dolphin kick altogether.

As discussed on Swimming World Radio's Off the Wall, rule changes have been made to keep swimming in a relatively pure order and keeping each stroke differentiated from the others. Dolphin kicks, for example, are allowed off the start and turns in backstroke but when they were overtaking the actual stroke, something had to be done, and the aforementioned 15-meter rule was introduced.

In contrast, breaststroke being given a dolphin kick in the first place was simply a matter of preventing cheating. If we take away the ability to cheat by ensuring that those who break the rules that are in place–as van der Burgh did–then we take away the need for this adjustment in the first place.

There is an argument that has been made that using underwater video review would slightly delay the results and that would somehow be bad. I disagree. I would rather wait 30 seconds for results to be verified than have, as we do now, months of controversy because someone got away with cheating.

Currently if, for example, a swimmer comes into the wall on breaststroke with a one-hand touch, a referee puts procedures into motion to disqualify that swimmer. It would be no different for underwater review. Time would be a non-issue with the exception of potentially catching more athletes who need to get caught and seeing more disqualifications.

At the big meets–Nationals, Trials, the Olympic Games–there is no shortage of officials willing to offer their expertise. There is no reason we can't add eight positions to monitor screens of below-water action. The cameras are already there, all we need now is to monitor them and actually enforce what we already see.

Granted, there will be those that say rules will be inconsistent at local meets because there aren't underwater cameras. To that, I point out that at local meets there is also no ready room in which athletes are checked to make sure they are wearing only one suit and that their FINA stamp is current. We make things work in the confines of the resources we have. At bigger meets we have more resources: Let's use them.

Lastly, of course, we have the records. People love to talk about world records. And, because of that, many will say we can't remove the dolphin kick from breaststroke because of records that have been set by people doing one (or more), then it will just extend the time to which said person's record is broken.

But I say this: FINA doesn't care about the records. If they did, the techsuits would have never been taken off the market or, when they were, we would have had a different record book. But there isn't, and there are no asterisks, and no marking of who wore what or what era their record was set in. Records are made to be broken, and they all will be eventually, so let's not hinge the purity of a stroke based on an arbitrary time that someone once swam.

People will disagree that breaststroke should be changed right now. But I think it's time for breaststroke to really just be breaststroke again.

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