Beijing 2008: Swimming world records  //  Meaningless sub-titles in Olympic glory?

14 Aug 2008 Posted by
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.


This post is part of the following threads: News/Controversies, Olympics Games, Beijing 2008 – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.