While the recent spate of world records and the impact of Speedo’s new LZR Racer swimsuit have seen a certain amount of controversy swirl about them the true nexus of the storm appears to be Eamon Sullivan’s stunning 21.28 50 free; a time nearly four tenths of a second faster than Alexander Popov’s long standing world record of 21.64. During the former record's seven year reign only two other swimmers even delved below 21.80. It was seemingly an epic, near unassailable time until Sullivan and then Bernard burst through within weeks of each other. Before Sullivan hadn’t even broken 22 flat.
Several on the internet have compared Sullivan’s achievement to Bannister’s first sub four minute mile, but frankly I believe it's a bad comparison. I don’t think breaking the four minute barrier was anything like comparable to what we witnessed in Sydney. Sullivan’s swim is equivalent to Bannister running a 3:57.3¹. Forget the hyperbole about the four minute mile being considered “not humanly possible” – the only question about the four minute mile which existed at the time was when it would be broken and by whom. World War II only partially delayed the pursuit as a pair of Swedes brought the record down from a pre-war 4:06.4 to a tantalizingly close 4:01.3 by war’s end; and after a momentary pause by the rest of the world to recover from its recent trials the hunt was taken up in earnest. Bannister was the first only because he moved up his race to preempt Australia’s Landy from taking the prize before him. There was never a real barrier.
Other bloggers have proposed the psychological boost coming from breaking Popov’s record (the “leading the way” theory of motivation) lent support to both Alain Bernard’s own wondrous improvement to wrest the record away from Sullivan, and to Sullivan's retaking and subsequent obliteration of it. That may be true but then they mistakenly refer to Bannister’s iconic race as likewise opening the competitive floodgates and enabling several to run sub four minute miles soon after. In fact only Bannister and Landy ran under four minutes in 1954, three more joined the club a little over a year later (all, coincidentally, running in the same race) and by the end of 1956’s racing season a total of nine men had broken through.² Not exactly a deluge. And it does nothing to support Sullivan's massive improvement.
Let’s not forget to address the LZR swimsuit controversy which has been very much in the spotlight the last month or so, seeing that seventeen out of the eighteen world records set during this brief period were by swimmers wearing the new suits. I wouldn’t be the first, however, to applaud the marketing savvy of Speedo in their choice to introduce the suits just before Olympic Trials when several world records are invariably broken anyways. And like many contrarians, I can and do question the level of the suit’s actual contribution. They may indeed improve times somewhat but I don’t see many willing to attribute all, or even most, of the recent gains in swimming to technological progress alone. It’s difficult to believe swimsuit design can make the qualitative jump which many are claiming, even if one accepts the premise that a swimsuit nowadays can create a significant reduction in drag or an improvement in metabolic functioning. Personally speaking I’m not one of them.
Yet despite all this I believe almost all these results will prove in the end not to be drug enabled – even Eamon Sullivan’s. Why? Well for several reasons. First I think the U.S. team’s performance at last years World Championships was a watershed moment for many around the world, which led the way for higher expectations from the elite swimmers in every country while providing the necessary clues as to how to go about achieving them. Another is 2008 being the quadrennial year, the year of the one competition which makes or breaks every swimmer’s career and consequently the ultimate test to train for – the Olympics. The 2007 FINA World Championships can almost be considered a preliminary event leading to the Games themselves. It’s equally obvious some of the new record holders had to have been anticipating rather significant improvements in their times: Libby Trickett (nee Linton) came into her country’s trials already knowing she could swim a 100 free under 0:53, she just had to do it in a sanctioned event; so her new world records of 0:52.88 and 0:23.97 for the 100 and 50 free respectively shouldn’t come as any surprise. Eamon Sullivan has been plagued by hip injuries for most of the latter part of his career and still remained one of the best sprinters on the planet – he’s been healthy for over a year now. Very few argue he doesn’t possess the talent to be holding a world record a la Michelle Smith. It’s only his overall qualitative improvement which has the knives out in certain quarters.
But where I take my greatest solace from is the great success Australia continues to enjoy in swimming. With only a little over twenty million Australia competes way out of its weight class in most international sports. Her story is an inspiring one to me though almost certainly not in the way most would envision. Because measured against the cold, hard reality of numbers Australia simply doesn’t have the population base to compete head-to-head with the rest of the world and come out anywhere close to the top. For example in the two most popular sports on earth, football and athletics, Australia is not a significant factor at all. The fact no one country dominates them either is not the point, it's that Australia does dominate swimming – slugging it out with superpower United States possessing a population fifteen times larger. And if twenty million people can achieve that it must mean the world combined can swim a lot faster. A whole lot faster. In an idealized world where everybody has access to a pool, proper nutrition and training there inevitably will come a day when Michael Phelps’ current and future records will be regarded in the same light we now consider Mark Spitz’s former ones – with a smile. A future where to be an Olympic finalist in the men’s 50 free will require bettering twenty seconds, and where women will be challenging Grant Hackett’s current world record in the 1500. It will happen. Put in that light Eamon Sullivan swimming a 21.28 becomes a little more palatable.
¹ Sullivan’s time was a 1.6636% improvement on the world record
² Google Answers: Number of Runners to Break the Four Minute Mile Soon After Roger Bannister (isn’t the internet amazing!)