Swimming world records fall like meaningless tenpins  //  Who wants to live forever? Not swimming world records, that's for sure

28 Jul 2009 Posted by

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?

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