Time for FINA to Take the Technology Plunge

By Phillip Whitten

Earlier this week, professional tennis announced that it plans to institute instant replay into its tournaments when the International Tennis Federation (ITA) approved use of the Hawk-Eye Officiating systems following extensive testing.

Exactly which tournaments will employ the electronic line-calling device is not yet known, nor has the set of rules governing its use been set. But the key decision has been made and, as a consequence, the sport will become fairer. With the decision by the ITA, tennis becomes the latest sport to incorporate modern technology into its major events.

Virtually every major sport uses technological tools to supplement human judgment and enhance fairness. Here in the United States, sports fans are probably most familiar with the National Football League’s “Instant Replay,” where, under tightly defined circumstances, a coach may question an official’s call.

Among the major international sports, swimming stands virtually alone in its refusal, thus far, to utilize 21st century technology. Earlier this year – in part due to clear rules violations by swimmers who wound up winning gold medals at the 2004 Olympic Games and 2003 World Championships – both the FINA Technical Committee and the FINA Coaches Committee voted to recommend use of underwater cameras. Despite the strong recommendation by its own committees and despite the fact that underwater cameras allowed millions of television viewers worldwide to watch Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima use a powerful, illegal dolphin kick at the start and turn of his 100-meter breaststroke, the recommendations were ignored by the FINA Bureau, deep-sixed without comment.

Ignored, too, was a DQ of Aaron Peirsol in the 200-meter backstroke by a French official who may have been miffed by Peirsol’s outspokenness about the100 breast. Though Peirsol’s DQ was quickly overturned thanks to quick, behind-the-scenes action by several USA Swimming officials, and though the French official was taken off the deck for the remainder of the Athens Games, it was overturned only on the basis of an obscure technicality.

Then, three months ago at the World Championships in Montreal, Poland’s Otylia Jedrzejczak utilized what clearly appeared to be an illegal, one-handed touch to win the 200-meter fly, pipping Australia’s Jessicah Schipper by 4-hundredths of a second and breaking her own world record by 17-hundredths. The Kenyan official at the finish did not call the apparent violation.

Australian head coach Alan Thompson immediately asked FINA to use the overhead and underwater TV cameras (which both showed the violation) to review the finish of the race, but the request was rejected with FINA stating its rules do not permit video review. (Though that was true, it was not the whole truth as it ignored several decisions reversed at the 2001 World Championships as a result of video review.)

In my editorial in this month’s Swimming World Magazine, I raised the issue again, pointing out that the use of video to ensure fairness could only benefit our sport, and asking FINA to reconsider the issue at its Shanghai meeting next March. Alan Thompson followed a week later with a similar request.

Swimming needs to use modern technology to ensure fairness. But if you think about it, our task is far more difficult than is required of video cameras and other technology in every other sport. Though I was aware of this fact, the difference between swimming and other sports was emphasized to me in a recent conversation with Mike Saltzstein, a USA Swimming Vice President.

In other sports, there is a single event, usually defined by white lines, that needs to be evaluated. For example, using tennis and football, the sports mentioned earlier:
• Did the tennis ball hit the white line (and thus was “in”) or did it land just outside the line? Technology can usually (depending on the angle) provide a clear-cut definitive answer.

• Did the tight end catch the ball and step in-bounds? Did the running back cross the plane of the goal line before being stopped? Did the quarterback have clear possession of the ball before his knee touched the ground or was it jostled loose before then? Again, these are single events, with a single point of focus.

Swimming is different in at least two major respects:
1. There are eight different athletes who must be watched for violations at the same time. This means significant added cost for technology plus more officials. It also means that the cameras (how many are sufficient?) must be positioned so that each swimmer is being observed from the same perspective.

2. Our rules are not written to take into account highly-accurate electronic measuring devices. For example, the rules for breaststroke and butterfly require that both hands touch “simultaneously.” But what does “simultaneously” mean in an electronic age? What if one hand touches half an inch (about a centimeter) before the other? Well, you and I would probably say that’s okay. But how about an inch? Two inches? Three? Six? Ten? Where do you draw the line?

Wherever you draw the line, how can you prevent every coach from challenging every swimmer who beat his athlete?

There are lots of similar questions that can be raised. Was a swimmer sculling during the push-off of his butterfly turn? Did a swimmer use an up-kick after his now-legal dolphin kick on the breaststroke start?

Then there are questions about the number of frames per second utilized by the cameras. And, of course, decisions must be made without disrupting the flow of the meet. And so on. I can think of dozens of additional questions, none of which are easy to answer.

While the need for modern technology – at least at major international meets – is clear, these are just some of the questions that should be addressed before such technology is put in place. After they are addressed, the rule book must be revised to take into account both the use of highly accurate digital silicon technology and the fact that human athletes are non-digital, less precise, carbon-based creatures.

It is a formidable challenge, but one that must be faced to bring our sport into the 21st century.

We urge President Larfaoui to appoint a small, working committee consisting of some of the most experienced and knowledgeable coaches and officials, as well as individuals conversant with modern technology, to consider these and similar questions, and report back with a host of recommendations.

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