Editorial Coverage Sponsored By FINIS
Commentary by Steven V. Selthoffer
It was officially posted on the Rio Olympic 2016 Internet site that swimming preliminaries and finals times for the 2016 Olympic Games have been altered drastically to new times creating a global uproar among athletes, coaches and teams once again. The change was called for by the American broadcaster NBC.
NBC Olympics is the broadcast rights holder for all summer and winter Olympic Games through 2032. They are experts in the production, coverage and delivery of the Olympic Games opening and closing ceremonies and sport events.
The purported reason for the time switch was to better position the swimming events live for the American market, which is the largest television market in the world – Editor’s note. The race times will reach the largest audience across the U.S. time zones. This market is important in order to increase advertising revenue needed by NBC to help offset the 7.2 billion paid to the IOC for broadcast rights – Editor’s note
Sport Preliminary and Final Time Windows
The optimal time for an athletes’ peak human performance to set national, world records and lifetime bests are in the time window from 4:00pm until 8:00pm with swimming finals usually being from 6:00pm – 8:00pm or many times beginning an hour earlier, starting at 5:00pm going to 7:00pm or 7:30pm. That is the most crucial and optimal time window when the athletes, whether swimmers or track and field athletes competing are tapered, psychologically ready and physically prepared to set world records and give life time best performances.
Preliminaries are internationally recognized to be held between 9:00am or 10:00am to 12:00pm noon giving the athletes time to rest and recover during the afternoon, usually after a number of events in the morning. That is what the athletes know and have trained all their lives for.
Shock and Awe
The Rio 2016 Olympic Games morning preliminaries will not be held as anticipated at the globally respected sport norms of 9:00am or 10:00am – 12:00 noon, but will be moved to 1:00pm – 3:00pm in the afternoon at a time when athletes are usually resting and asleep in preparation for early evening finals.
And the finals? NBC has now moved the Rio 2016 Olympic swimming starting time for finals from 6:00pm – 8:00pm to 10:00pm – 12:00am Midnight And beyond…
Immediate reactions from swimmers and coaches in Europe and abroad learning of the new Rio 2016 midnight finals imposed by the American television network NBC range from instant emotional shock and anger to despondency and unbelief.
“How could they do this to us?” “It’s unfair.” “The heats and finals (times) are bad.” “This is insane.”
“They’re doing it again. I can’t believe it!” …were some of the reactions earlier last week.
Anger has turned to silence and deep seated resentment among U.S. competitors believing that NBC is hijacking the sport for their own profit once again.
Prior to that, ignoring the protests of the athletes and coaches going into the Beijing 2008 Olympics, NBC had moved the finals times to morning and the preliminary times to evening, upending the sport for the sole benefit of the American audience sitting in time zones nine (9) to twelve (12) hours behind, across the international date line- in a previous day.
Democracy and Athletes Don’t Count
Over 70 Olympic swimmers from nearly as many nations tried to stop the time change in Beijing, led by Dutch great, triple Olympic gold, double silver and double bronze medal winner, Pieter van den Hoogenband, NED. Van Den Hoogenband met privately for over an hour leading up to the Games with IOC President Jacques Rogge, but the effort was in vain. Rogge had already made up his mind.
What many believe is that the midnight finals move has now turned the athletes into nothing more than public performers and commercial servants.
The essence of sport is supposed to be about competing fairly against the best when they are at their best on a level playing field, when everyone is optimally prepared mentally and physically to give their lifetime best effort.
However, now there are new developments threatening those foundational principles once again.
What Should Happen?
When the Olympics are awarded to a city such as Rio de Janeiro, that city is the Host City for the Olympic Games. And that Host City’s time zone in that country should be the governing time zone for the Olympic Games. Not the U.S. Olympic Committee’s time zone. Not a NBC home time zone three (3) and four (4) hours behind in a completely different country. NBC was not awarded the Olympic Games; they were awarded broadcast rights.
When the host city’s time zone like Rio de Janeiro’s is the governing time zone for the Olympic Games and sport norms for prelims and finals are respected then it is 100% fair for everyone.
Swimming, like track and field events are not acting “performances.” They are not “games” that can be played at any time of day where the only thing that matters is who wins. They are measurable events determined by absolutes down to the hundredth of a second or meter. They are measurable events of time and distance, per stroke or team event that are measured against history and the world’s current top performances, along with world and Olympic records. They cannot occur at just any time of day.
Athletes, Attorneys and Team Managers
This is professional sports. Millions of Euros are at stake for performance bonuses and world records.
If anyone says, “This is not that big of a deal,” hasn’t done their homework and must be viewing it from the American perspective. On the contrary, it IS a big deal. As a matter of fact, it’s huge. It’s unfair to American competitors and it’s damaging.
If anyone says, “It will be fair for everyone.” That is a lie. It won’t be. No matter how hard they try to spin the finals time change.
If anyone says, “We’ll be ready for any final start time they tell us,” coaches, athletes, and their attorneys and representatives should ask themselves, “How?” What’s the plan for peak human performance when athletes are forced to do multiple time zone changes in a very short amount of time when other athletes have none? How is that a level playing field?
Americans can fool themselves with talk like that. But, they can’t fool their competitors or their enemies.
What athletes, attorneys and their managers should know is, whenever you upend the sport and set a finals time that is contrary to the best interest of the athletes, that undeniably harms them first emotionally/psychologically, then with the change, it degrades them physically and places at risk their ability to achieve peak human performances and set records. They know they’re disadvantaged. It is not what they’ve prepared for and what experts and team doctors have told them all their lives. Consequently, you have irreparably harmed the athletes on a number of levels.
In each individual sport, the sport prelims and finals times should be sacrosanct, held at globally recognized sport norms to protect the ability of the athletes to achieve lifetime best performances and to set world and Olympic records.
If it’s not about sport excellence, creating the best environment and venues for optimal peak human performance and placing the welfare of the athletes first- then it’s not Olympic. Period.
Pre-Olympic Training Camps
When each country’s Olympic team is finalized, a major part of the preparation is traveling and moving into training camps. Training camps are a refined science. National team coaches and team managers around the world know what to do and how to do it. It’s planned out well in advance. It’s about creating an environment without distractions that is as close to race conditions as possible getting the athletes psychologically and physically prepared to lay down the absolute best performances of their lives.
A national team coach’s top priority is to hold the training camps in the exact time zone and climate where the Olympic Games are being held to fully acclimatize their swimmers to the time zone and environment of the host city.
When it comes to getting acclimatized and synced to the time zone, no two people are identical and it takes longer than many realize. Athletes arrive weeks early before the start of the Games to get comfortable and to readjust their biological clocks.
Having the human body’s internal clock adjust and reset to that time zone in that part of the world is not an exact science. Jet lag, training exhaustion, tiredness from traveling from different points on the globe without a long enough rest can devastate an athlete’s performance.
The length of time necessary to adjust yourself to a different time zone is different for each individual and different when moving from one side of the planet to another. It is also not easy going from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere.
With the Olympics and a life time of training on the line, no officials or national coaches will risk anything. They will get the athletes there in plenty of time.
Nothing is left to chance. They know they must arrive at a minimum of a couple weeks in advance to the host city of the Olympic Games to adjust to the host city time zone. They know anything less would harm the athletes and their performances.
Before the Sydney Olympics many teams arrived three to three and a half weeks early to acclimatize themselves to Australia and the Sydney time zone. For the Athens 2004 Olympic Games many national swimmers from around the world flew in a month early to southern Europe to get acclimatized to the Athens time zone and heat, staying in training camps scattered around various European cities.
Time Zone Certification
To confirm the time zone differences between different cities during the Rio 2016 Olympics we sent an email to Mr. Erik (E.F.) Dierikx, Director Timing, Dutch Metrology Institute, Delft, Netherlands requesting his assistance to confirm the time zones and their time differences for the month of August during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
VSL is the Netherlands’ Metrology Institute and is an authoritative knowledge institute in the field of metrology (measurement) internationally, as well as in the management and development of national primary measurement standards VSL experts provide.
There were a number of factors to consider, such as the difference in time zones for winter in Rio de Janeiro and summer in the USA and Europe, one hour time zone shifts from or to day light savings time between now and August in Brazil.
Mr. Dierikx stated, “Considering that Brazil is in the southern hemisphere, August is the winter time for Brazil. In this time of year Brazil is on its standard time. This means that Rio de Janeiro will be at UTC – 3 h (Coordinated Universal Time) from GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). Argentina and Chile are in the same time zone as Rio de Janeiro. New York and Miami are UTC -4 h. Chicago and Houston are UTC -5 h. Denver (Colorado Springs) and Salt Lake are UTC -6 h, Los Angeles and San Francisco are UTC -7 h.”
He also said, “Most European countries are on Daylight Savings Time. Portugal and the UK will be UTC +1 h. The Netherlands and Central Europe will be UTC +2 h, Finland, Turkey and Eastern Europe will be UTC +3 h.”
10 PM Finals is Problematic for European Swimmers
European athletes will first leave their home time zone and move into a training camp let’s say with only one time zone change. Then they will arrive in Rio de Janeiro in another time zone with about four, five or six hours difference to get acclimatized. They will arrive two or more weeks in advance before the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games to adjust to the Rio time zone which should be the Olympic time zone, but, it’s not.
But, then after they adjust to the Rio time zone, then they will have to kill that and readjust again at some point (nobody knows how and when to do it) for the NBC American-based time zone four hours behind in order to swim finals from 10:00pm – 12:00am midnight.
It totally deprives all of sleep and wipes them out. No one will be happy about it once they learn that they’re forced to change time zones arriving in Rio a minimum of two (without a training camp) or three times before the Games while the Americans… don’t have to do it at all.
And some teams combined with their training camps may have more than three time zone changes. Every team can calculate their own changes
The First Undisclosed U.S. Embedded Advantage
At this point, it appears that the 10:00pm – 12:00am finals time in Rio is perfectly ideal for the Americans to swim personal bests and set world records in. Why? Because for them it’s really only 6:00pm to 8:00pm, the optimal time (zone) for peak human performance in the USA.
Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the U.S. Olympic Committee and their U.S. Olympic Training Center is also the home of USA Swimming, and along with the entire west coast of California, they now are in the perfect time zone window for peak human performance to set world records with late night finals in Rio.
The late 10:00pm starting time for finals in Rio will feel like 6:00pm for California swimmers and only 7:00pm for USA Swimming, home of their U.S. national team and pool in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s just perfect.
The Second Undisclosed U.S. Embedded Advantage
And the prelims? The most ideal time for prelims globally is 9:00am or 10:00am until 12:00pm noon. So with a 1:00pm start time, prelims are now scheduled to last until 3:00pm. That set up comes with another embedded advantage for the U.S. team.
A 1:00pm start time will feel like a favorable 9:00am start to the California swimmers and a 10:00am start time for the home pool of USA Swimming and their national team.
US swimmers will not have to adapt to any time zone change at all going into Rio if they have done the math correctly, while their European and Australian competitors are looking at a minimum of two or three time zone changes and the necessity of holding an artificial time zone change when in Rio.
National Coaches Don’t Like It
Preeminent national head coach Mark Schubert, USA, wrote, “I agree with you regarding this situation. I don’t think it is good for anyone, especially for the Europeans.”
Talented national head coach, Henning Lambertz, GER, saw the ramifications for his team instantly when learning of the NBC midnight finals, “It’s unfair! Money rules the world. Let me know if I can help to do something against these times. I will!”
Jacco Verhaeren, NED, and Australian national head coach, in the Australian ABC News interview, Sunday, December 7, 2014 criticized the decision to hold midnight finals in Rio calling it a “lack of respect” not only for the athletes and the sport, but for the Brazilian hosts as well. Brazil is one of the top five global swimming powers also.
He then went on to say, “We are not swimming for America. We are swimming for the world. Clearly the choice is not made for performance reasons. There is only one reason and that is television and money and only American television and money and that to me is not really fair.”
It isn’t. Why? All athletes are not competing under the same conditions.
Internal Body Clock Has Huge and Dramatic Impact on Sporting Ability
Dr. Thomas Kantermann, Researcher at the University of Groningen, Netherlands is an expert on chronobiology studying the times athletes go to bed and their best hours for peak human performance the next day.
In the recent BBC article “Bedtime has a Huge Impact on Sport,” by James Gallagher, January 30, 2015, it focuses on some of Dr. Kantermann’s work stating that “Our internal body clock has huge and dramatic impact on sporting ability that it could alter the chances of Olympic gold say researchers.” The article goes on to state that personal body clocks differ in individuals and missing their window for peak human performance can cause a performance variation of up to 26%.
When Dr. Kantermann was informed of the mandated midnight finals at the upcoming Rio 2016 Olympics and the starting times of 10:00pm with finals possibly lasting past midnight Dr. Kantermann stated in an email, “The uproar is more than understood.”
Later that afternoon the phone conversation began:
Dr. Kantermann: “This is crazy. Who is doing this?”
Dr. Kantermann: (after a short pause for thought he said directly) “This will result in sleep deprivation and compromise performances.”
Dr. Kantermann then went on to explain further about the differences in individual body clocks and the challenges European athletes will have to make with two time zone changes. First leaving the European time zone they are naturally in, going into the Rio de Janeiro time zone during the two week period upon arriving. Then, having to change to an artificial time zone (not under lab conditions) of four hours earlier to accommodate and sync with the prime time American time zone.
He then contrasted the negative effects the Europeans would experience against the benefits the U.S.
Team will have who do not have to make any time zone adjustment.
“Humans cannot perform equally well at any time of day. I thought it (Olympics) was supposed to be a competition of different nations on even ground under the same conditions?” Kantermann asked.
Olympic Athletes Are Not Lab Rats
After analyzing things from different angles Dr. Kantermann summed up his thoughts, “Look what we have here even with individual sleep patterns, if you lose a little sleep, these can alter your performance significantly. That can really make a difference in sports. Your body clock determines your performance window. You can’t change that… You are talking about accommodating two time zone changes over a short period of time. It’s not tested (in major competitions) that I’m aware of. Sleep deprivation will compromise performances. It will be a challenge sticking to the new time zone change for eight days there.”
The Olympic Village is not a laboratory. The Rio 2016 organizing committee is not building “time zone areas” with bright lights and dimmers (and sound proof rooms) for competitors to live in, to adjust to the American time zone for the midnight finals.
The truth is, it’s not possible. It will harm the athletes.
Coaches know under normal conditions when championship finals end at let’s say 8:35pm, then the athletes must go to anti-doping, then a swim down, after that they face media and personal demands in the Mixed Zone, then go through the medal ceremony… see family, then transition into the venue media area, after that they do the television interviews… Then from there it’s more people and team mates in the hallway making your way back to family.
Jacco Verhaeren, stated, “I think the biggest concern is the life in the Village because athletes return to the Village after a swim down and drug testing maybe after 2:00am (under normal conditions). They still need to have dinner because their whole time shifts. How to deal with that in an Olympic Village where other sports wake up in the morning and you are trying to go to bed, that is a disturbing factor for other sports as well.” (Source: ABC News interview, December 7, 2014).
The entire Olympic Village and all of the accessory events, meetings, phone calls, media and sponsor demands, eating times, etc., (not to forget sun rise and sun set) will all be on the normal Rio time zone.
The best thing about midnight finals going into Rio is the ability to test it. Doing it yourself in your own country under conditions as perfect as you can make them. Go ahead. Put all the athlete’s reactions on video. Post them on YouTube® and put the test results down on top of the table. Make the test results and data public and open for the whole world to see.
Try running the FINA 2015 World Championships in Kazan, RUS on the same Rio 2016 format. Why not? Shouldn’t you have test events? Or try running other meets or workouts at 1pm – 3pm and 10pm – 12 midnight or later for eight days in a row. Like any novelty it might be fun at first. You can play basketball at midnight under the lights, or tennis or football very late.
But, this is different. This is about precise measureable results of time, per stroke and distance. This is about putting a lifetime of training and preparation on the line. When it comes down to peak human performance and a stop watch over a 50m pool, it won’t be fun. It really screws an athlete and their performances. Holding an artificial time zone change doesn’t work even under the best conditions.
The negative results will accumulate and the athletes will see they are being used, endangering their lifetime best performances placing them at risk for the privilege of one country’s television audience and one country’s advertising revenues.
The Rio 2016 Olympics combined with the midnight finals is a bad format. It’s more than irresponsible making competitors do psychological and physiological time zone experiments, damaging the lives of Olympic athletes before and during the Games.
Who is going to pay for all of the new chronobiology experts needed now in each swimming federation? What are the recommended standards, procedures and formats for training? Holding tests? How viable are the methodologies?
Right now, there is no political “resistance” because there are no Olympic athletes yet. They are too busy training. They still have to post FINA A or B qualifying times this year and next. Then, they have to remain as one of the top two positions from their own country. They will not know they made the cuts until a couple months before Rio.
Consequently, maybe teams should reconsider. In order to be best acclimatized to the Olympic midnight finals time zone, maybe U.S. competitors should think about changing their training camps from the Caribbean or South America to the American home pools of some of their top Olympic team members from Los Angeles? Or San Francisco? Or possibly sharing space at USA Swimming’s home pool in Colorado Springs?
The Big Questions
The main questions everyone has now are: How do the national team doctors prepare athletes in non-laboratory conditions? Who will be held responsible for harming the athletes and their performances when it doesn’t work out during the year and a half of testing leading into the Games? How does anyone hold an artificial time zone during the Rio Games perfectly for eight days straight?
As more experts analyze the consequences of 10 PM finals this may be one of the largest scandals in sport history. The advantage one team has been given by their own television network over all of their global competitors is clear, undeniable and unprecedented. (Publisher’s Note: In all fairness to NBC, USA swimmers did not benefit from NBC’s decision to hold morning finals in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as it related to time zone changes.)
The Rio Olympics should not be about NBC, television rights, 10 PM finals, afternoon preliminaries, sleep deprivation, multiple time zone changes, compromised performances or anything else. It should be about the athletes.
Fair play and sport excellence, creating the best environment and venues for optimal peak human performance and placing the welfare of the athletes first, should be respected and be non-negotiable.
As the weeks progress moving forward this places the IOC, NBC, FINA and others at cross road. Let’s see what is more valuable… The money? Or the lives of athletes and the fair play and integrity of Olympic sport competition.
To read full unedited article submitted by Steven Selthoffer (Click Here)
* Notes — We would like to thank the following people for their generous assistance and contributions: Mr. Brad Barnhart, USA
Mr. Erik (E.F.) Dierikx, Director Timing, Dutch Metrology Institute, Delft, Netherlands.
Dr. Thomas Kantermann, Chronobiology Unit, University of Groningen, Netherlands.
Henning Lambertz, GER. National Head Coach, Germany. DSV Deutscher Schwimm-Verband.
Mark Schubert, USA. Distinguished U.S. National Head Coach, USA Swimming.
Jacco Verhaeren, NED. National Head Coach, Swimming Australia.
For more information on these topics, please go to:
VSL, Dutch Metrology Institute, Delft, Netherlands
University of Groningen, Netherlands
International Olympic Committee
Rio 2016 Olympic Games
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.