Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It’s Getting Surreal Out There

There are eighty six events in swimming recognized by FINA for world record status, split equally between the two sexes. Historically many have had records which lasted for years. They represent the ultimate achievement in the sport by our species, and they are very, very, very difficult to break. Or they should be. For some time swimming has come under considerable scrutiny with its history of drug abuse; the perception rightly or wrongly that swimming is more susceptible to the influences of performance enhancing drugs than most other sports. The fact all but a couple of the existing world records have been established after the turn of the millennium has raised many eyebrows around the world. Little wonder swimming is currently labeled a ‘high risk’ sport.

Recently an amazing and rather bewildering flurry of world records has been seen. In just five weeks fifteen world records have been set, and without any real participation from the United States, the dominant power. Let me hasten to say along with the multitude of others who’ve commented on this phenomenon that I’m not saying drugs are involved in these recent records – just that this recent flurry of world records is ... well, surreal. And these new world records are not just the incremental improvements we’ve normally come to expect. The old times are being obliterated. Former world record holders are waking up in the morning to learn not only they’re no longer the standard bearer but now they lag well behind the newly minted champion. That must come as an awful shock. And in keeping pace with these world records a flood of similar improvements is coming from a host of other, albeit 'lesser' competitors. A time which just a month ago would have led a swimmer to believe he or she was a legitimate medal contender is now looking more and more like something which perhaps won’t even qualify for the finals at Beijing.

Why? Most are pointing at Speedo’s new LZR Racer swimsuit as the reason. Fourteen of the fifteen records have been set by swimmers using this new suit. The new Aqua V-cap used by Natalie Coughlin and others may also be contributing to the dramatic drop in times. But there are doubts which will require time and better understanding to completely dismiss. For instance the new LZR Racer’s effects are being attributed to the increased compression and core stabilization offered by the suit rather than the materials, which essentially are the same used in Speedo’s older Fastskin models. Given the exaggerated claims made for years about one swimsuit or another’s effectiveness it is only natural to question whether the recent dramatic drops in times can be attributed entirely to just wearing a different swimsuit. After taking a look at the typical Olympian’s body is it logical to believe wrapping it in cloth differently can make such a profound difference?

Consider, for instance, the well publicized controversy coming from Eamon Sullivan’s and Alain Bernard’s world records in the free sprint events. In Sullivan’s case rather thinly veiled innuendo about the possibility his improvement could have been enabled by drugs has been hotly denied, even though there is little Sullivan can do to defend himself against speculation. Craig Lord at has written an excellent piece upholding Gary Hall Jr.’s right to question the drop in Sullivan’s times you should read here. Lord argues that Eamon’s improvements are indeed unusual at the elite level and, when viewed in an historical context, such drops often have indicated doping. Then what about Alain Bernard bettering Eamon? What does one say about that? Bernard has cited his increased emphasis on power as making the difference and personally I think his stated approach is perfectly reasonable for a sprinter. So I can rationalize the why of his improvement even if the amount he’s improved is difficult to fathom. But right now on the various chat sites it’s being bandied about that Bernard has gained anywhere from six to twenty kilos of muscle in the past eighteen months in order to make those improvements. As Mr. Lord says we need to learn more.

I can also draw upon an uncomfortable analogy from my work with taxes, where loopholes are created when a provision is interpreted in a way not envisioned by the original drafters. On rare occasion this novel approach is perfectly legal, but more often than not the users simply hope to fly under the radar of the tax authorities. It’ll work for two or three years before whispers leak out into the professional tax community and by next tax season I’m looking at the new shelter’s basic structure to gauge how defensible it is in court and its applicability for my own clients. Very few past muster. Yet invariably, like clockwork, years later I’m fielding calls from my clients telling me about this same tax shelter being offered to them for a fee. Equally certain is that by this time the tax authorities are well aware of the scheme – the number submitted has exploded from a few dozens to tens of thousands, none of which are nearly as sophisticated or subtly presented as the ones the original innovators had designed. No surprise when they are uniformly rejected, often after being hit with penalties and interest, or already shut down by statutory change. So am I be surprised when I start to see world records fall like rain just before the Olympics? After observing over the past couple of years a forty year old woman become a world class sprinter on virtually no training? Unfortunately not. If she can obtain her results just imagine what the elite swimming community consisting of teens and twenties could do? But I’m practically sure this isn't the case. I really do believe these recent results aren’t drug related, that they are due to a new bathing suit and swim cap and, of course, to superior talent. Well, I certainly hope so. And hopefully when the suits become more common and more and more wear them we’ll see everybody’s times drop and my lurking suspicions will fade away. Really. But until then the Eamon Sullivans of the world will just have to grin and bear the innuendo until time validates their marvelous achievements. Or in this case times which apparently merely mark technology's inevitable progress.

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