Will FINA Keep Evolving Rules to Accommodate Free Thinkers?

Guest commentary by Caroline Simmons

As I was watching the Southeastern Championships, I had the pleasure of sitting next to an old swimming friend. After watching a few of the events, the conversation began to focus on the rules and regulations of swimming. Throughout the years that I have been involved in swimming, I was under the impression that most of the rules and regulations have never really changed. That was definitely an incorrect assessment as I looked deeper into the history of our rules.

I now realize that they have been doctored and reformulated many times in the past few years. Looking forward, my guess is that the rules and regulations will continue to be changed for the same reasons they have been altered in the past: coaches and swimmers are always looking for a way to exploit an official’s inability to make a call. I’m not personally a fan of altering the rules to fit the exploits, but the reality of the situation makes it a bit difficult.

Backstroke used the infamous touch-and-turn method through the 70s and 80s. This method is simply touching the wall while on the swimmer’s back, then turning to their stomach. In reality, judging this touch-and-turn method of backstroke was difficult. But, since officials follow the simple phrase “The swimmer is given the benefit of the doubt,” the infraction was rarely called. So, as to eliminate such doubt, the rule was changed to allow the swimmer to roll to their stomach for a turn prior to the touch.

FINA has been manipulating the wording of the breaststroke rules regarding underwaters and submersion during a stroke cycle from the 1950s to the 1980s. Until 1980, the rule basically stated that some part of the body must always break the surface of the water throughout the length of the pool.

In the 1980s, underwater footage of the world record setting times revealed that the breaststroker was submerged. FINA had to either redact the world record or change the rule. Of course, they changed the rule! Submersion was nearly impossible to judge from the surface.

More recently, the addition of a single butterfly kick to the pull out of breaststroke, originated from the underwater footage of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Japan’s gold medalist, Kosuke Kitajima, used a dolphin kick during his breaststroke race. The dolphin kick can clearly be seen on the underwater video.

The problem is, with the officials standing on the surface, the disqualification would be extremely difficult to spot, if at all. It was after this event that the single butterfly kick during the breaststroke pullout was made legal.

So where does this put us today?

Upon reflection, most of the rule changes originated from someone finding a loophole or an area in which noticing the DQ during a race would be difficult to judge. Officials are always told to give the swimmer the benefit of the doubt, a stance I wholeheartedly agree with taking.

However, when you have swimmers and coaches obviously bending the rules, is this innovation or cheating?

Butterfly’s genesis was from the breaststroke, when the rules simply dictated a mirror movement of both arms and legs. Butterfly followed all the breaststroke rules at the time, but in turn created a whole new stroke! Kitajima’s butterfly kick during his pullout went unnoticed until the Olympics.

Aware or not of his actions, the official’s incapacity to view the movement enabled him to use this movement during his race without disqualification.

It’s even worse now with South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh admitting to cheating his way to a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics because everyone else could be doing it. Although, he has spoken out since in favor of more stringent judging including underwater cameras.

Many new innovations to “traditional” swimming strokes simply interpret a rule while still toeing the line. Swimming underwater until the 15 -meter mark is not illegal, but still many athletes have had questionable breakouts. Tennessee’s top arm backstroke breakout is relying on not passing the vertical plane. But can an official faithfully condone that for a split second the swimmer did not roll a little too much on to their stomach?

What about the harmonic motion of breaststroke? The rule currently states no downward butterfly kick, but for anyone that has studied physics, what comes up, must come down!

The 15-meter mark for the breakout is easy to spot. Placing an official at the 15-meter mark ensures a proper call. Without any doubt, disqualification is as simple as crossing the line. As for the backstroke top arm break and the breaststroke harmonic motion, an underwater camera would help to have a clear view.

Bringing in underwater cameras, however, poses another conundrum. Would all records have to be performed under the watchful eye of the camera? And, would all meets past a certain caliber have to host underwater views?

Doctoring the rules for backstroke may be the simple answer. Adding a clause to the existing rules stating the swimmer must be on their back prior to breaking the surface of the water would eliminate any possible disqualification from executing this top arm break out. A factor to take note, this is BACKstroke. Passing the vertical plane in an underwater, does not take away from the essence of the surface swimming stroke, but it does mean the swimmer is not on their back.

The breaststroke harmonic is a whole new ballgame. Judging the harmonic kick of breaststroke can be difficult even with underwater cameras. By polishing the current rules to include of a single butterfly kick for each cycle similar to reading of the current breaststroke pullout, could drastically change the playing field and the fundamentals of the stroke, much like the addition of submersion had in the 1980s.

I’m not a proponent of changing the rules, but I can understand why it happens and have explained a few of the places where these rules are likely to change. This is a sport where swimmers and coaches are always looking to toe that line of legality in any way that will allow a swimmer to swim faster. Some call it innovation, while others call it cheating. And, as has been proven many times in the past, the sport tends to adapt to the innovators, and not to those trying to enforce a strict interpretation of the rules.

As each of the strokes evolve, the future of swimming will come down to swimmers and coaches toeing that line of legality in any way that will allow the swimmer to swim faster. They will be careful not to cross the line and hope the rules and regulations change.

As I sat in the stands watching the races pass, I really can’t stop thinking, where will the sport lead next?

Caroline Simmons is a graduate from the University of Tennessee with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. She has also begun a coaching career, having coached UT’s Masters team during her final two years in Knoxville. Last year, she helped the Lady Volunteers win the 200-yard freestyle relay at the NCAA Championships.

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Author: Jason Marsteller

Jason Marsteller is the general manager of digital properties at Swimming World. He joined Swimming World in June 2006 as the managing editor after previous stints as a media relations professional at Indiana University, the University of Tennessee, Southern Utah University and the Utah Summer Games.

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