World records in swimming compared to records in athletics - interesting observations
Two days ago, I did a post looking at the absolute "cleansing" of the record books in the sport of swimming this year. 70 records in 2008, 66 Olympic records in the recent Beijing Olympics, and swimmers who began the year as world record holders (think Alexander Popov) suddenly find themselves outside the top 10 in that same event by the end of August! It has been an unprecedent explosion in the sport, one which I do believe is bad for the credibility of swimming.
That post got some good feedback and questions, and hopefully prompted some thought about the causes. There are some who have claimed that this astonishing "record-rush" is the result of better training and better athletes. Yet that implies that swimming legends like Alexander Popov, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Ian Thorpe, Janet Evans, were "inferior" only a few years ago. The problem is the timing, not necessarily the concept - evolution in training, generation of better athletes, only works when you look back over many years.
For example, we can compare the current marathon world record holder, Haile Gebrselassie, to Jim Peters, who held it in the 1950s, and then it's appropriate to say "better athletes and better training". The fact is that great swimmers who were world record holders at the start of 2008 (like Alex Popov) are now not even in the top 10 in their events! Better training, which by nature tends to evolve slowly, especially in a mature sport like swimming (this is not BMX racing with rapid growth opportunities), doesn't demote you from best EVER to outside the top 10 in a few months.
So I firmly believe that the suit is a large part of the "problem", whether it's a placebo effect or a real one (I believe it to be real) is another debate. But the latest news is that the USA are pressing FINA into banning the full body suits, and as mentioned the other day, the big swimming nations might yet step in to 'save the day' for swimming.
The influence of doping: Swimming flies under the radar
One interesting aspect of this debate is that little mention is made of the possible impact of doping in swimming's record-explosion. If it was cycling or athletics, the noise would be far louder, the accusations far more frequent and much more intense.
I have no doubt that doping happens in swimming, just as it does in all sports. But massive doping scandals are conspicuous by their absence - the Chinese swimmers of the 1990's are perhaps the most recent large scandal. Jessica Hardy missed the Olympic Games for a positive test, Ian Thorpe defended himself for an alleged EPO positive, but other than this, I can recall few high profile cases.
I suspect that a big part of the reason for this is that doping is far less beneficial for swimmers than it seems to be for track and field athletes. This is not simply a bald assertion, it is a conclusion drawn from the analysis of world records, which I discuss below. So before leaping onto the attack, consider the follow story, told by numbers:
World record evolution and what it means for doping
The table below shows the average age of the world records in men's and women's swimming events at the closing of the Beijing Olympic Games. They are the same tables I showed in the previous post:
- In men's events, the average age of world records was 1 year, 1 month.
- For the women, it was 8 months. That was thanks to the incredible events of Beijing, where a total of 21 world records were broken.
- The result is that when the 32 events are combined, only 4 of them have records that are older than three years.
- For men (a total of 21 events) , the average age of track and field records was 8 years and 11 months
- Of the 21 records, 16 are older than three years. The age has actually been greatly reduced by Usain Bolt's Beijing performances, because he took out a 12-year old record (MJ in the 200m) and also helped the relay team break a 16-year old record.
- The average age of world records is 14 years and 9 months. That is an incredible 22 times older than the swimming records (14 yrs 9 mths compared to 8 mths)!
- 18 of the 21 records are older than three years
So what does this mean? Some observations and ideas
The more astute among you (and we know that all of you are particularly astute!) have by now scanned those athletics tables, and you will have noticed the number of records that date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s - men's and women's field events in particular are dominated by records set in this period. I think it is unquestionably known that athletes of the 1980's, especially in women's athletics, were quite "reliant" on anabolic doping products!
In fact, across both men's and women's athletics, it is only really the men's track events where any world records have been set in the last ten years, and those are courtesy first of Usain Bolt in Beijing, and the east African runners (whether these are drug-assisted is another story entirely!)
Implications for swimming
So what does this have to do with swimming? Well, you've by now already come to the conclusion that athletics records are so "old" because they are influenced heavily by doping that was undoubtedly pervasive in the 1980s and early 1990s.
But, the question you might ask, is "Why do the swimming records not reflect the same pattern?" It is again difficult to argue that the swimmers of the 1980's and early 1990s were NOT doped. We know that the eastern Bloc nations, in particular East German athletes, were heavily into drugs at this time - this applies to both swimmers and athletes. Yet the drug-induced records from the pool are now long gone, ancient history, replaced by the records set in the "new era", thanks to newly designed swimming pools, training methods and, in particular, swim suits.
There are many possible implications and arguments about this. I believe it suggests that the impact of technology in swimming dwarfs that of doping. This is clearly not the case in athletics, because records exist that may survive forever - can we ever expect to see a woman run under 47.60 seconds for 400m, for example? Perhaps "forever" is too strong a word, but what is certain is that the track and field records have withstood all the improvements in equipment and training since the 1980s.
Swimming, on the other hand, has leapt forward, and I do believe that this is an indication that doping is far less significant to swimming performance, which is the statement I began this analysis with. The reason for this, I believe, is that swimming is such an "inefficient" activity (even the world's best swimmers are only 7 to 9% efficient, I'm reliably informed), that any technology that reduces drag in the water has an enormous effect on performance. On the other hand, drugs which improve strength and power (as the drugs of the 1980s would have done) may have a far smaller effect, with so much of the gains being lost to the inefficient swimming stroke.
This is an oversimplification, and the obvious argument is that doping may be very effective, but is "masked" by the added introduction of technology. If they've been doping for years, technology would still move the event forward when it is introduced. I'd be keen (as always) to hear your views and opinions on that statement.
Is track and field lacking credibility in a different way?
The final point, an extension from the previous post, is that if swimming lacks credibility because its records are broken almost at will, then does athletics lack credibility when some records are so superior that it may take two or three generations to come close?
One might argue that in the case of women's athletics in particular, world records are equally meaningless, just as they are for swimming, though for a very different reason. If I was a female 100m runner, I'd certainly be more than disgruntled that the world record in my event is almost 0.5 seconds faster than most women will ever run. That is perhaps just as bad.
I have a feeling that IF FINA does ban the suits, we may, in 20 years time, find that swimming is in the same situation as athletics is today - its world records are "meaningless", simply because they are so out of reach that rather than being a trivial subtitle to the race (as they are now), they are a remnant of a previous time, where doping (technological or pharmaceutical, depending on the sport) was rife.