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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Beijing 2008

Swimming world records: Meaningless sub-titles in Olympic glory?

Today must have been an 'off-day' for the Beijing Water Cube. "Only" 2 world records was broken in this morning's competitions, those of the 200m Butterfly for women, and the 4 x 200m Freestyle for women. Admittedly, the latter record was smashed, by all of 5.79 seconds, but the rest of the day was something of an anomaly, because of the relative lack of appearance of the letters "WR" alongside a winning time in the Beijing pool

Yesterday, an incredible SIX world records were broken in FIVE races. First, Bernard and Sullivan broke the 100m Freestyle records in their semi-finals, then Federica Pelligrini of Italy broke the 200m Freestyle record, followed by the incomparable Phelps in the 200m butterfly, Stephanie Rice in the 200 Individual Medley for women, and finally, the US Men's team obliterated the 4 x 200m Freestyle record.

The first four days (until this morning) have thrown up 16 world records, an extra-ordinary performance by an measure. The number of world records set this year now exceeds 60, an unprecedented number, despite what coaches say about this being "typical of an Olympic year". If anyone has data on world records per year, please let us know, but this spate of world records seems extra-ordinary.

The pool was expected to be fast, the swimmers were expected to be peaking and primed to break records, and of course, Speedo's LZR Racer was expected to help them. Yet the question remains: What is responsible for the glut of world records in the pool?

A mix of factors and theories

Some quite bizarre theories have been put forward. Dirk Lange, head coach of the SA swimming team (which has produced none of the world records, incidentally), attributes them to the "killer instinct" of the swimmers. This of course implies that no other swimmers in history have had quite the same desire to break records. Killer instinct must therefore be a new feature of an Olympic swimmer, and it's a bizarre attempt at explaining it. It also means that the South African swimmers must lack that killer instinct, and perhaps this is what he intended by the statement. Either way, it's a peculiar suggestion, and perhaps best left at that...

Another theory by Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe's three-time silver medallist, is that the proximity of the crowd, their energy, and the venue have created conditions that lend themselves to fast swimming. Certainly, in an Olympic Games, that is a big factor, but I'm not sure it quite explains how records are being cut by 2 or more seconds in some races.

A big factor is the pool - deeper, wider, and therefore designed to minimize turbulence and "wash", which helps the swimmers move quicker through the water. The pool is apparently 50cm deeper than the Athens pool and also has no shallow end - equal depth the whole way. There is also a "spill deck", which prevents water from washing back onto the swimmers from the side walls of the pool. And while this is likely a contributing factor, I'm not sure that this is able to explain the magnitude of the records we've seen broken.

Doping? Swimming remains under the radar

One factor that is almost noticeable by its absence is doping. If this were cycling or track and field, we'd all be talking about the impact of drugs on performance, viewing performances with a great deal of scepticism. Yet swimming seems to avoid this same level of scepticism, which is peculiar. I must confess that I'm not convinced that the sport is clean (in fact, I'm highly doubtful), but I do think that doping is less likely a cause in swimming than in other sports, for reasons of efficiency in the water, which we will certainly cover in a future post.

Chinese performances: Scepticism or systems producing results?

However, doping remains a real possibility. I'm intrigued as to the sudden rise of the Chinese WOMEN swimmers, for example. In this morning's 200m Women's Butterfly final, China took gold and silver, and the world record by an enormous margin of 1.22 seconds. What is more telling is that the gold medallist, Liu Zige, has improved by 10 seconds this year - her winning time in the Chinese trials was 2:14, today she swam 2:04. That magnitude of improvement is extra-ordinary.

I'm also intrigued as to the absence of Chinese MEN from the swimming races - we've seen a number of women, but no men. The same will happen in the mountain biking event, and also the track and field competitions. Are the Chinese men just that much weaker? Is the overall standard of competition higher in the men's events? Or are we seeing the results of the Chinese sporting system? And why might it be more effective in women than men...? I can think of a reason, but I'm trying to remain hopeful (naive might be a better word) that it's not a function of steroid hormones having a greater impact on females than males...

An endangered species: Swimming world records

Returning to the issue of swimming world recors, a remarkable comparison can be made between track and field and swimming, as shown in the table below.

In track and field, there are 26 events for men, and 26 for women. Of those 52 events, ONLY FIVE have been set since 2004, and the remaining 47 are older than the Athens Olympics. It does get a bit dodgy on the women's side, because so many of the records date back to the 1980's, when the women had more testosterone than most men! (In fact, do a little exercise and go down the list of women's world records, trying to spot the 'potentially clean' ones - it's a difficult task!). But if we stick to the men, then of the 26 events, 22 are older than Athens, and only 4 have been broken in the last 4 years.

In swimming, there are 32 events, and 26 of the records have been broken SINCE the Athens Olympic Games. It is a complete reversal from track and field. The result is that a world record in swimming has an incredibly short lifespan - if it lasts more than about 2 years, it's a "survivor", and most seem destined to fall within 12 to 18 months.

Swimming efficiency: Is swimming still improving?

So then, the obvious question is why? We've already discussed the "killer instinct" (not likely), the Olympic atmosphere (only every 4 years, so not complete), and the pool (a contributing factor for sure).

There is of course the Speedo LZR Racer, the swimsuit that took the world by storm earlier this year and threatened to blow just about all those swimmers NOT wearing it out of the water. It has been very obvious that most of the swimmers are wearing it, though that is also a function of the fact that many nations are already Speedo sponsored. Those that weren't have had to allow their swimmers to switch, out of fear of the potential fallout of not doing so.

So has the Speedo made a difference? Difficult to say. Proper scientific studies are required, and maybe after the Games, they will be done. So far, it's impossible to differentiate between the placebo effect and a real benefit. One thing that is interesting is that a lot of the world records, including those of Phelps, have been broken wearing only the full-length pants, and not actually the full suit. Given that Speedo's suit is supposed to work by compressing the swimmer's body into a more stream-lined shape, it's interesting that many have succeeded with only the leg suit.

The role of swimming efficiency - a little goes a long way

One thing that must be kept in mind regarding swimming is that tiny improvements in efficiency make an enormous impact on performance. I stand corrected on the figure, but swimming is roughly 7% efficient - that is, only 7% of a swimmer's work is actually "useful", with most lost to the water. Therefore, if the efficiency can be improved by only 1%, it makes a much greater impact on performance than if efficiency were improved from 24 to 25%, as might be the case for cycling.

That is why I believe that technological advancements, including the suit, but also including things like video analysis of the turn phase, improvements in the butterfly kick, and training body position can make a big difference. Michael Phelps demonstrates this every time he races and gains a lead off the wall, thanks to his underwater phase. Quite why he is so superior, I don't know, but it's clearly an area where tremendous gains can be had through small changes. And perhaps Beijing's spate of records are happening because of technology and the impact it has had on the mechanics of swimming? That's worth discussing again in the future.

Is it a problem that world records are so frequently broken?

A swimmer will of course argue that it is not. But let's face it, when every final is expected to produce a world-record, we react with some disappointment when it's not. That can only, in the long term, serve to devalue standards. Swimming finds itself, I believe, in a dilemma where it may find that pretty soon, technology and training methods begin to reach a plateau, and suddenly, the anticipated deluge of world records ceases to happen.

So while we enjoy watching records broken by 5 seconds, and every single gold medallist seems destined to grab a world record with their gold (and sometimes the person in fourth place too!), it does create quite an artificial environment. Whether that cheapens the event and sport is another issue. I'm undecided, but maybe in five years' time, swimming will have hit a plateau in performance, and then we'll know.



Anonymous said...

Weren't similar results seen when Bowerman first introduced his waffle shoes to his Men of Oregon? Technology seemed to be a leading impact in the number of sub-4 minute milers who were produced in Oregon and 'Olympicized' as a result of these mechanical advancements. (Or course there was the advancement of the rubber track as well which shortly after began breaking world records in almost every discipline as well.)

So where will the line be drawn as far as technology and its varying degree to 'improve' (or should we call it dilute) an athlete's true potential? Changing the field and changing the technologies allowed in an event will of course make the sport more entertaining, but where is the line going to be drawn as far as athletics and interfering with one's maximal effort?
Is the next step going to allow time trials to be rode on bikes with supersonic-looking bikes, ready to race the salt flats for even more record breaking times?

Anonymous said...

Swimming efficiency for the elite swimmers peaks at about 10%. Humans and dolphins have the same muscular strength (of course humans cannot swim like dolphins, but let's not get into the cheetah-human argument again :grin) yet dolphins are at least four times faster than the fastest human; one huge difference is the hydrodynamic shape, we humans have a hopelessly inefficient shape while the dolphins have the ideal one.

At the 1992 Olympics, Alexandre Popov of Russia outswum Matt Biondi of USA in the final of the 50-meter free by 21.8 seconds to 22.0. Popov did it taking 35 strokes compared to 38 of his opponent which is a huge margin at that level! Popov trained at the time with coach Gennadi Touretski, who also had a degree in engineering, and placed great emphasis on swimming efficiency.


P.S. My sources are older articles by Terry Laughlin of Total Immersion.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting point about China's apparent rise in the ladies events with their men failing to counter.

I have no frame of reference or statistical backup here, but are the Chinese not a smaller race, generally speaking? I'm sure that someone will bring up the topic of their giant basketballer who carried their flag out at a good 7 feet plus of altitude, but I'm talking about comparing their male population mean height to that of a sample Caucasian population mean height. With Phelps, Hacket and the other 6ft4 plus towers with size 15shoes in the pool, is this not a possible reason?

From my own observation, I do not think that the mean height of the Chinese ladies would have such a pronounced a deviation from a Caucasian mean.

One question that I would love to find an answer to is why the Africans do not dominate in the pool the same way that they do on the track. They obviously have the physiology for the performance, although saying this I did see one in a heat in the current games.

I would guess it has something to do with the fact that the bulk of the African population is actually in Africa, which is characterized by poor development structures in sport... especially swimming. The percentage of Africans living outside of africa where there is access to pools is small i.e. <10% in America, I've heard. This lack of access and reliability upon facilities for swimmers means that few can get into it at the young ages required (Have a look at the stats of any Olympic swimmer and there is a general trend, they have been water babies since they can remember rather than picking it up late in life). African runners can still develop as they do not are not shackled by facilities or equipment (this goes for cycling too). They can just run.

Am I waaaay off here or is there another reason that I'm not seeing?

Anonymous said...

Hi, jeanvw14.

Perhaps another reason for the dearth of Olympic swimmers of African origin is their higher bone mineral density, making them less buoyant in the water (also true for Hispanics).

How much of this fact actually contributes to the lack of participation is probably unmeasurable. Sport participation is a complex phenomenon that is determined by many social factors, such as those that you mention.

I just thought it might be interesting to throw this out there. Like you, I would appreciate other possible explanations, and it is my turn to consider if I am the one off and that there are other reasons I am not seeing.


Anonymous said...

No one has spoken about the almighty dollar in any of this. I don't have data to back this up but as more money has come into the sport more swimmers are able to dedicate their lives to their sport and hence training and therefore are getting closer to their potential in the sport. Other sports like athletics have had big money involved for longer than swimming and hence competition and world records are closer to the limits of human performance. This will eventually be the case for swimming. Now there probably wasn't a period of time when athletics saw the same prosperity and performances relative to world records as currently in swimming. But this is probably irrelevant.

I think this prosperity in swimming is great for the sport. It will draw in more money and hence lead to better performances and then more money. Performances will inevitably plateau out and like in athletics will lead to a great competitive environment where rivalries will lead to great racing and memorable moments. Look at the 100m freestyle for men.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points and discussion (as always :-)). While reading this post and comments, I had a question to throw out there, in regards to the term "efficiency."

Max VO2 is a measurement that we are all familiar with and know that the bigger the VO2, the better it is for the athlete in terms of potential.

Efficiency is also a term used alot, where in cycling it is estimated to be around 20-25%, in swimming 7-10%.

Although I confess to still not know the true definition of the term "efficiency" or as it relates to the term "economy", as they seem to be used interchangeably, is there a measurement is used to describe the ratio of "efficiency" to "Max VO2??"

In cycling we hear of "Lactate threshold as a percentage of Max VO2" and you can measure that during a lab test and determine a ventilatory threshold at the point. Apples to apples.

Can you do the same with efficiency and VO2 or is it apples to oranges. I guess it all comes back to what the term efficiency truly means and how it is determined.

Hope this is not too confusing and makes sense - starting to ramble :-)

As always - great discussion, love reading all this.

Unknown said...

Great article, it's been awesome to watch all the records fall and I think it has to do with a combination of all of the things you mentioned: the pool itself, the suits, motivation at the games and let's not forget the impact Michael Phelps has had on the sport. I am sure videotape of him was studied 4 years ago with that excellent push off the wall- I think many of the worlds best swimmers have upped their game as well and have learned from him. I think the learning will continue, especially with that .001 of a finish, you can never coast into the wall with someone like Phelps on your heels.
As far as technology, anything that can reduce drag has a huge impact on the times. Swimming records will fall with new suits just like time trialling splits fell with the introduction of the aerobar. Runners have their shoes and suits and neither has seemed to change that much so maybe that will be the next innovation...