Gary Hall Jr. hit the news yesterday once again with a controversial statement that his guts told him the recent glut of world records this year is as much due to doping as it is to technological advances in suit design – and he feels the problem is world wide ... his beloved United States included. While he certainly won’t get an argument from me there are many prominent individuals more than willing to take up the banner of drug-free swimming. You can find them every where. A few days ago on Gary Hall Jr.’s very own Race Club message board the subject of thirty eight year old Briton Mark Foster setting a new personal best of 21.96 was raised. For those who aren’t immersed in the minutia of sprint swimming Mr. Foster formerly held the short course 50 free world record several years back. He’s also known for the longevity of his career. Refused a place on Britain’s Athens Olympic team he quit for a spell but returned to successfully qualify for Beijing. A blogger going by the moniker Trojan immediately claimed vindication for Dara Torres. His comment, “He just dropped his PR in the 50 by .16 (sic¹) – he has been at this since 1987. Where are all the Dara doubters now?” was met with the collective equivalent of a polite pat on the head along with reminders the questions about Torres’ performance weren’t just based upon her age. Undeterred Trojan hit back. “Sorry – but you guys are rather selective in your reasoning” he wrote, “his time is 0.66 (sic) off the WR – Dara is 0.59 off the WR. The 50 is the main question here – I don't think swimming a 54+ when you are able to go 24.5 is any "miracle". Since the thread was about Mark Foster and not about Dara Torres there were only a couple more desultory posts on the subject before the conversation switched back to Foster and his achievement.
But I’d like to respond to the challenge. By all means let us compare the two and their achievements. When Trojan asserts Torres’ times are equivalent to Foster’s I’d like to quote Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Rather than relying on the two’s relative proximity to different world records (something not possible because they’re independent of each other) I submit to use instead the much more defensible analysis of relative improvement over time. For this I’ll rely on Olympic Trial performances for my source data: one because they provide both a regular flow of data over time and also because they provide reasonable guarantees they reflect peak efforts. Foster at thirty four, for example, swam a 22.49 50 free at the 2004 British Olympic Trials (good enough for the IOC but not good enough for Bill Sweetenham). Thus his recent 21.96 translates into a 2.36% improvement over that, or a 0.77% improvement over his previous personal best (PB) established seven years ago. To me this appears plausible after factoring in he was wearing the new LZR Racer. Regrettably Dara Torres’ situation is rather more complex so you’ll have to bear with me here. Today her career best is 24.53, achieved last year at the age of forty, and it’s important to note this was done without the aid of today’s advances in suit technology. Now let’s go back ... waaay back ... to Dara’s first retirement. It came right after the 1988 Olympics where in Trials qualifying she had swum 25.83. Her 25.61 PB at that time (which was for a short while the world record) had been achieved fully four years earlier. Thus now over forty she’s able to swim 5.03% faster than at twenty one, or 4.22% faster than what she could do as a seventeen year old with her best ever world ranking. After a short retirement she returned for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Trials but once again finished without an Olympic berth in an individual event, swimming a 26.07 in prelims and a 26.15 in the finals. Three different times, three different Trials, but surely the trend which led to her second retirement is easy to see – she was getting slower. Now sixteen years later, thirteen of which were spent out of the pool in retirement, she’s swum an amazing 5.91% faster than her 1992 trial performance without any help from the new suits. Contrast this to Mark Foster’s bettering his 2004 performance by 2.36% with a LZR Racer. Trojan thinks their performances are comparable? I have to disagree.
Of course I have no actual evidence to support my contention Dara Torres is cheating as, because she’s never recorded a positive test result for performance enhancing drugs, it’s just pure supposition and a wheel barrowful of circumstantial evidence on my part. Neither does Gary Hall Jr. have anything to support his “gut feeling” doping is wide spread in swimming. The response to his statement has been swift and furious. Australian Libby Trickett, current world record holder in the women’s 50 sprint, thinks he needs “to keep his mouth shut, especially when he doesn’t have anything to back it up with”. American Amy Van Dyken, a former world record holder in the event and someone Hall specifically mentioned being on the same BALCO list as Marion Jones, sputtered in an email to the Associated Press “It is ridiculous that Gary would say something like that. It’s slanderous, outrageous, and unfounded!!!” Give me a break ladies. The history of the women's 50 free absolutely reeks of doping. In fact it’s a source of considerable personal amusement I actually believe it possible Dara Torres was likely the last clean world record holder in this event; at least until perhaps a couple of months ago when Veldhuis and Trickett stepped in with a big assist from the new suit technology. But listening to Trickett saying “If you are doing it here in Australia you are definitely going to get caught” and “FINA and WADA are doing a great job” knowledgable insiders of the sporting world must wonder, performance enhancing drugs or not, what recreational hallucinogen she’s indulging in.
¹ Actually Foster's new personal best was an improvement of 0.13 seconds and he’s 0.68 off the world record (WR). Not much of a difference but in the 50 sprint hundredths of a second take on enormous importance.