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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Swimming world records fall like meaningless tenpins

Who wants to live forever? Not swimming world records, that's for sure

Queen's song "Who wants to live forever" has been working overtime in Rome. There is a certain irony in the fact that every single time a world record is broken in the pool during the current World Swimming Championships, Freddie Mercury's voice echoes around the Foro Italico, asking a rhetorical question that typifies the sport of swimming at the moment.

In response, I thought I'd play around with some numbers and try to illustrate just how swimming records have been cheapened, so below is that analysis.

Background - the swimsuit wars

You would be forgiven, had you been out of touch lately, for thinking that maybe the Italian swimming pool had been built a few meters short! If you have followed the media for the last 18 months, then you'll know that we're seeing the effects of the "swimsuit wars", initiated by Speedo in 2008, and now carried forward by Jaked, TYR and Arena. To sum up a long, complicated story, the debate is around what materials and designs should be legal in swimsuits, and whether the manufacturers have developed costumes that are performance-enhancing through improving buoyancy and body shape in the water.

FINA has been slow to respond, allowing Speedo's LZR Racer, then allowing the others...sort of...I think! Some are banned, some are awaiting ratification - I must confess it's been difficult to keep up with from outside the sport!

But the result is that swimmers are jumping ship, violating sponsorship agreements to swim in what they perceive to be the superior suits. Meanwhile, retired greats have been shot out of the top 20 of all-time, displaced by swimmers who seem to have come from nowhere. All the while, watching the sport, I'm never quite sure whether I'm seeing a great swimmer or a good one, wearing a superior costume...

Rome World Champs - meaningless world records

Two days in, nine world records gone. Not that this is surprising, for world records in swimming about as common as a starter's pistol - almost every race is won in the "greatest performance ever". And when a world record is not broken, as for the men's 50m butterfly event last night, there is almost a sense of disbelief, a feeling that maybe that wasn't really the final, but a qualifying heat, because the swimmers must have been taking it easy to NOT break a record.

Being a follower of athletics, I'm accustomed to a sport where world records are special, seen by only a few lucky people, achieved by the true greats of the sport. Anyone who has ever witnessed a running world record, for example, can be assured that they were seeing a human being run faster than anyone in history, and that this performance was special.

Swimming world record age analysis

For swimming, it is not the case. The records are broken with an extra-ordinary regularity. Part of this is the sport - swimming does lend itself to more frequent records, because small changes in things like technique, body position and training can produce relatively large effects on performance.

However, we've never seen anything quite like the impact of swimming costumes on the world records. I thought an interesting analysis would be to go back to something I did last year, looking at the age of swimming world records in the immediate aftermath of the Beijing Olympics.

Back then, I worked out that BEFORE the Beijing Olympics began, the average swimming record was only 1 year and 10 months old for men, and 2 years 6 months old for women. Thanks to a spate of world records in Beijing, that age fell to 1 year and 1 month for the men, and 8 months for the women - that's right, the average age of the swimming world records for women was 8 months.

That is incredibly short - it's placed into context when you realise that the average age of athletics world records is 8 years 11 months, and 14 years 9 months for men and women respectively, as the graph below shows.

There are of course factors that contribute to this - drug taking in the 1980s has rendered many of the women's athletics records "unbreakable", and so it is not surprising that women's athletics records are a little older. The same can be said of many of the men's events, especially in the field.

Cycle to cycle - the lifespan is determined by competition

But for swimming, a record is now very unlikely to last from one major championships to the next. In fact, in Beijing, 21 events out of 32 had their world records broken. In Rome, this statistic will be even worse.

To kick off the analysis of swimming, I thought I would update last year's analysis and look at the current age of swimming world records. The table below shows the ages of the records (in days) on the eve of the current championships:

I have highlighted in blue the records already broken in Rome (this was after 2 days, at the time of writing). You'll notice that on the men's side, the second oldest record (Ian Thorpe's 400m Freestyle) was broken. For the women, the oldest record has already fallen (100m butterfly), as have the second and fourth oldest, and so both the men's and women's record age will fall dramatically when I revise this analysis to INCLUDE the current World Championships (which I'll do once they are complete).

Obviously, because we've had nearly a year since the Beijing Games, many of these records are now older than in my previous analysis (the analysis is somewhat "artificial" because records are only really broken in discrete events). However, I want to point out the following:

  • For men, only four world records were older than 1 year. Now that one has gone, three remain, and this is likely to change as well, I suspect
  • For women, only four world records were older than 1 year. Three have been broken already which means that only a single world record is older than one year
  • In men's swimming, only three world records have survived both the Beijing Olympics and the year following it. With four days of swimming remaining, it's unlikely that all three will survive, which means that for men, every single record may have been set between Beijing and the current world championships
  • For the women, this situation almost already applies - one single world record remains, at it may well be broken in the next two days. Swimming world records do not, in the current environment, last beyond two major championships
  • A final observation that some of you may have made is that the longest-lasting records are without fail in the slowest events - the men's 400m, 800m and 1500m records stand out, and the women's 1500m event is a sole survivor. Until the Beijing Games, the women's 800m was the oldest record in the books. Only the 100m butterly record was a true outlier, but it has now fallen, two days ago. It may be that the suits are more effective at higher speeds - an Olympic medallist revealed to me that his experience was that the suits were ineffective at slower than 2 m/s (which is the speed in events up to around 400m freestyle - greater than this, speeds are too slow)
Ban the suits as from 2010 - records will suddenly "live forever"

All of this is good and well, of course, as long as the momentum can be maintained. The problem is that FINA have finally decided that they will ban the controversial, high-tech polyurethane material as from 2010. This means that all the swim suits currently being worn during these "greatest performances ever" will be outlawed, and we will not see swimming world records broken for a long time. Or, alternatively, FINA will not allow these latest records, effectively turning the clock back and banning the suit. But, they would then find themselves with the almighty problem of figuring out WHERE to cut the records - was it before Beijing? Before the LZR? What about the full-length suits used in Sydney in 2000? It's a tricky one, without an easy solution.

We received a telling comment about 2 months ago from a reader, who asked what would be worse than allowing the suits? The answer of course, is to allow them for a short time and then ban them, which is exactly what FINA have done.

That's not to say they're wrong, of course, it's just that this decision is long overdue, and not one that they should not have seen coming, given that all this debate around high-tech costumes kicked off in January 2008. But, politics, business and administration make for some conflicted decisions, and the end result is that Queen's song "Who wants to live forever" may soon be out of favour - the new theme song for swimming will be from a James Bond film, "Die Another Day".


Join us tomorrow for our next swimming analysis, which will look at two examples of how the current swimsuits have impacted on swimming world records. Swimming records do tend to have shorter lifespans, and breaking records in 'batches' is not unheard of. But, what we're seeing now is unprecedented, and I'll look at that in a bit more detail tomorrow!

Also, Michael Phelps races against Paul Biedermann tonight in the final of the 200m freestyle. Biedermann broke Thorpe's 400m Freestyle record, racing in an Arena suit. Phelps on the other hand, is "so 2008" in his Speedo LZR, and so it makes for an intriguing clash, in which the world record will surely fall. It's just a question of to whom?


Unknown said...

Has the swimming federation confirmed that the new swimsuit-records will be allowed to stand? I remember the UCI being in a similar situation when it disallowed certain positions/equipment for the one hour cycling record - the solution was to split the times into official record times (achieved with the old equipment) and the new record times were relegated to 'best human effort'.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Pascal

As far as I can tell, yes, MOST will stand. There are one of two that are still awaiting ratification, and a couple have already been declared illegal. I think a French swimmer (Bernard or Bosquet - I have to check) broke a record that will not be ratified.

So what seems to be likely is that FINA will review the records again, now that they have made the decision to ban the suits.

So you're quite right, many will not stand "officially".

The next question - where do they go back to? Do they say "post-Beijing", because that includes the Speedo? Or do they say "pre-Beijing", which excludes the Speedo there but not before? They might say "pre-Speedo LZR", and go back to say 31 December 2007, but there have been fully body suits since 2000.

So they have themselves a king-sized dilemma!

Eventually, they'll probably settle on pretty much what you've suggested but not without a few pains and protests!


Sigmund1 said...

Now I am not a swimming fan. cycling is the sport for me. But why ban the suits at all? Just like in cycling improvements in equipment makes the sport more fascinating (and I think the UCI made a big mistake in outlawing new equipment for the hour record). In a couple of years the development of new suits will have plateau and we will have taken human motion through water to a new level.

tr3v said...

I have to agree with Sigmund1. Surely this is all part of evolution, and the technological advances should not be suppressed. This happens in so many other sports, so why not swimming?

Shutting the gate after the horse has bolted is madness.

Colenso said...

Excellent analysis, as always, from the guys at the Science of Sport.

Now, call me a purist or a pervert, but I have always despised the whole notion that we ought to wear any sort of costume when competing. It's just another unnecessary complication that has come about in western societies because of Judaeo-Christian neuroses about the naked human body. If the prudes don't like the idea of seeing naked humans zooming around in the buff, then they can watch American Rules football or some equally worthless but fully clothed activity instead.

The Greeks (men and women) competed naked in all their sporting festivals and so should we, either segregated into the separate sexes (as with the Greek games) or, if the moral pundits could cope with the shock, together as glorious examples of the possibilities of the human form.

BGC said...

Notwithstanding the technological advances which are creating the rapid fall of World Records, I can think of a similar situation from the athletics arena on how to deal with a likely 'backwards' step in performances.
In 1986 the men's javelin was redesigned which resulted in a 10% reduction in distances. Effectively, a line was drawn - the old javelin was illegal and the WR could only be set using the new javelin. (Even now, 23 years later, the 'new' WR still has not surpassed the 'old' WR) Given the situation FINA have created for themselves, the only thing they can do is to set a definitive rule on banning the new swimsuits to come into force on a given date. ALL existing World Records, whilst still noted, will become invalid from this date.
I can see how this is potentially unfair on those who set world records "pre-swimsuit", but it is probably the best way to get over this debacle...

DrTim said...

Good stuff. Been looking forward to your first swimming post ...

One discouraging thing is Paul Biedermann's response to the 'are you on drugs?' question. To which he said 'Last year I had over 20 doping controls and over five blood controls. I can sit here and say yeah I am clean and that's all about it I have to say.'

According to the taxonomy I posted the other week (https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=753215493005715353&postID=6192456059895690800) that rates pretty low (circa 5 or 6 on the scale), i.e. I haven't tested positive ... yet ... and from now on ... no comment.

What a shame.

Anonymous said...

I think the history/record books of the future will end up with a little asterix next to all these recent world records that notes: "record set using performance assisting suit". I really dont see how these athletes can sleep - knowing full well that their performances can not be repeated without the suits.

What next? getting kids to have surgery to create skin like webbing between fingers? Sure - a far fetched idea, but what a shame that swimming is now more famous for the sort of suit being worn rather than the athletes performances. What a joke FINA are at administering their sport.


Ralph said...

I'm not sure it's really that important... Just like with the Javelin change, it made no difference to the fact that everyone knows that Jan Zelezny was the greatest ever. To me its about dominance over a significant period. Current times don't influence my view that Coe and Ovett were greats - but based on todays time's you wouldn't rate them.

Bannister comes to mind too, but then you can also perhaps position the whole sorry decline from the good doctor. His use of pacemakers to beat the record set the scene for the endless pursuit of records, and the use of science to do it (sorry doctors Ross and Dugas - back to you guys in a moment). It's a shame to have to wait for the Olympics to see athletes race eachother instead of the clock. Ban pacemakers I say!

But first back to Coe and Ovett - whilst they're back to back world record breaking was part of the legend, a greater part of their legacy was the fact that they were really competing against eachother (even when they weren't in the same race!) So records aside, sport is about the ultimate pursuit of victory against other human beings - not the clock. When they did compete head to head, Moscow 1980 - well, I can't talk about it, cos I get too choked with nostalgia!

Leonard/Duran/Hagler. No times, no world records, just great sport.

So let them break records in the pool, we'll remember Spitz,and as the new times are set, it will make little difference.

Oh, and Drs Ross and Dugas - despite the problems it brings, the science brought sport is part of the excitement of it - as long as we're not naive enough to compare Phelps with Spitz, bring on the records - even the swimming ones are exciting - I've just this moment watched Van Den Burgh get a WR and Gold for South Africa!!!!

Anonymous said...

people; cycling, golf, tennis and many other sports ALL rely on equipment. They are equipment sports... you don't have the equipment you dont have the sport.

Unknown said...

Hello. I'm looking for an info of how many world records (overall - men and women) were broken since 1996 in every year... is there a way you can provide me with that information?