Olympian Issues: FINA Relay Rules And Doping Questions


Editorial Coverage provided by Suit-extractor-logo

Commentary by Michael J. Stott

While the swimming community basks this week in the excitement of the Olympic team selection it is instructive to acknowledge some underlying elements regarding the competitive landscape itself. Several elements have medical overtones. One has to do with the size of the Games themselves and how it affects athlete relay participation, while the other has to do with health concerns and issues of fair play.

FINA rule 1.06 addresses relays and the rules of engagement for selected relay team members. Relay squad size is restricted to six. Should six athletes be selected FINA mandates that each swim at least once in prelims or finals. According to a March 2015 ruling regarding Rio in 2016 the relay qualification is spelled out as follows: “If a NOC enters relay-only swimmers for a specific event, those swimmers must swim either in the heat or final of that relay event. Should a relay-only swimmer not compete, this will lead to disqualification of the respective team in the final.”

In the Olympics, especially in this day and time, size matters. “The intention of the rule is to cap the size of meets/entrants and the exponential mushrooming of required support staff,” suggests James W. Miller, FAAFP/Sports Medicine and National Team Physician for USA Swimming. Miller is also one of 10 members of the FINA Sports Medicine Committee. Attempting to cap Games size makes sense given the difficulty of countries without the existing infrastructure or resources to properly host the quadrennial spectacle.

Given the cap, it is difficult to add new sports (golf, surfing, etc.) without taking away numbers (or the activity altogether) from an existing sport. “If you add another sport you need to subtract athletes, or a sports altogether,” says Miller.

But let’s go back to countries with six relay members. What if relay members fifth or sixth swimmers aren’t as fast as the top four? “If you have an athlete who has been selected and is not going to participate, he must have an acceptable reason for not participating. It could be an injury, an illness, a reaction to a mosquito bite and so on,” says Miller. “A lot of those things are decisions that have to be made by professionals, i.e. the physicians that will be overseeing that team. Team physicians are conflicted by definition,” he comments. That means for aquatic sports the FINA Sports Committee members will render those decisions.

“Those decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis by a physician. Would I judge a 50 freestyler the same way I would judge a 10K open water guy? Probably a little differently. It will depend upon what the athlete does and how he presents,” says Miller.

Three common concerns he has heard concerning Brazil as an event site are venue water quality, use of probiotics and the Zika virus. Unlike some Miller is unconcerned about water quality for the open water and triathlon events citing that testing results were “fine” and that the last Masters meet in Rio passed muster. Water quality for boating events is another matter.

Those who use probiotics to ward off infection need to be mindful of ingredients and any banned substance lists. As for the Zika virus he sees it highly unlikely to affect any athlete.

So . . . what about doping? Miller skirts the issue some by citing a decades old study that asked a number of world class athletes that if they were given the chance to take a substance that would guarantee them a gold medal but would shorten their lives to five years would they indulge? More than 90 percent said they would. “People of that maturity don’t get a lot of resistance to that concept,” says Miller.

Yesterday when John Leonard, the excecutive director of the American Swim Coaches Association, was asked if Rio would be the dirtiest Games ever, he reaffirmed his long held belief by saying “beyond comprehension.” The recent IAAF ban of Russian track athletes and resulting IOC waffling permitting their possible reintroduction has only served to strengthen his concerns.


  1. avatar
    David Abineri

    With the rest of the world gaining in potential relay strength the coaches will have to be much more careful in selecting their relay swimmers so as to avoid what happened in the World Championships where the selected relay team did not make the final.

  2. avatar

    Why this website don’t have different languages support?

  3. avatar

    Why this site do not have other languages support?