By Craig Lord
THE company was illustrious indeed at a heated poolside debate in Helsinki last month in which the
thorny issue of the backstroke turn rule was thrashed about. Roland Matthes and Stefan Pfeiffer were at the helm of a German press pack that had Nico van Dam, the Dutch referee on the ropes after Ralf Braun, the reigning European champion over 200m backstroke, followed teammate Sandra Voelker in the club of world-class swimmers to fall foul of a rule that is so open to interpretation that FINA should agree a new wording BEFORE the Sydney Olympic Games.
Braun had cruised in his morning heat, clocking a time comfortably good enough to progress to the semi-final. Then the news: he had kicked his legs after turning onto his front to turn, but the kick was not part of "the continuous movement of the turn".
Shame that no-one interpreted the rule thus when Neil Walker, of the US, power-kicked his way into every turn on his way to backstroke world records at the World Short-Course Championships in Athens in March. The video of Walker's swim, that the Germans cited as a reson why they are teaching their swimmers to kick likewise into turns, is unequivocal: Walker turns over, a thunderous freestyle kick follows as he does a double pull into the turn.
Germany and Sweden threatened to protest in Athens and FINA issued an interpretation "help sheet" to explain its rule. That explanation contains the information that a swimmer should start to turn over for his turn "not too far out" from the turn. What "too far out" means is open to any number of interpretations and European nations last month accused LEN, and
indirectly FINA, for having a rule that meant one thing for the Pan Pac nations and another for Europeans and left European coaches unsure what to
instruct their swimmers to do as the Olympic Games approaches.
Braun and his coach Beate Ludwig echoed all of that, the swimmer saying: "I came here for the gold not for two massages." Ludewig said it was impossible to know what to teach a swimmer when different rules appeared to apply in different parts of the world. If leniency was allowed for Krayzelburg, Walker and others, then it should be allowed for Braun and his European rivals. "It's nonsense," she said. "Maybe they didn't want to disqualify Walker at such a FINA show event and when he'd broken the world record."
Clearly, on the video evidence and in the eyes of all who were there in Athens, including this correspondent, Walker had broken the letter of the
law in Athens and got away with it. Not the swimmer's fault but FINA's for having such a lax rule in its book and the judge and his team at the championships.
What now must follow is a rapid revisiting of the rule to make sure that all swimmers at the Sydney Olympic Games swim under the same conditions and are not disadvantaged by the fashion of their turns.