Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Should we call him Flipper?

Remember me? It's been a while. I do intend to continue this blog, but a blistering work schedule, and more recently, and even more demanding Olympics veiewing schedule has been pretty rough.

First, if you haven't been here before, I'm a father of a child with Autism and I competed in the 2012 US Masters Swimming Summer Nationals to raise money for the Ozark Center For Autism. Go here for my intro blog.

Now that I'm somewhat caught up on my sleep, I want to bring up a subject that is weighing on me, and isn't getting much attention. Do you remember last week in the mens 100 meter breaststroke where Brendan Hansen pulled off an unlikely feat of winning the bronze medal from lane 8? Do you remeber the winner of that race, Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa? Did you notice he broke what the world record? Well, if you haven't heard yet, he cheated. That's right, he intentionally broke the rules in order to give himself an advantage, and he admits to it. You haven't heard much about it unless you are a pretty hardcore swim fan like myself. NBC just caught on and posted a story today for something that happend over a week ago. Even the best swim news sites took more than a day to post something about it. But, that could be explained in that if you are going to break a story that is calling an Olympic gold medalist a cheat, you better make sure you are right.

Here are your questions with answers:
What did he do?
In breaststroke at the start, and push off of each wall, you are allowed one stroke pull, and one breaststroke kick underwater before you surface. In 2006, thanks to a similar controversy in the 2004 games in Athens, they added that you are allowed a dolphin kick during that underwater arm pull. Otherwise, all dolphin kicks are illegal. A week ago I saw that posted this video that clearly shows van der Burgh executed 3 illegal dolpin kicks after the start, prior to starting his arm pull, and then one legal dolphin kick.

Okay, he cheated, how much did that help him? There has been some debate. You do not move faster through the water at any point in a race than when you dive in. You can see in the video swimswam posted that VDB kicks immediately upon entry into the water. Some argue performing a dolphin kick at this point creates more resistance than it would replace with  propulsion. I think there has to be some benefit, and the VDB experimented to prove it. I'm sure he experimented to the point that he knew just how many kicks were optimal. And it certainly doesn’t stop there. In order to be certain he can get away with it, he needed someone to watch him to see if the infraction is visible from where everybody knows the officials are watching from. This type of experiment could be completed between ½ hour to 2 hours. You don’t think he spent that amount of time making certain he optimal number of kicks? He knew exactly how much those illegal kicks help him, and he knew exactly how much he could get away with this without getting caught! Now I could conduct a similar experiment to tell you how much this will help me. But, I really don’t want to know how much this would help my race.

So, everyone knows he cheated, what will FINA and/or IOC do? That’s a good question, but the answer is simple. Nothing. If you are a sports fan, at some point in your life you have to come to terms with this one truth, bad calls and missed calls are part of the game. Case in point is last year’s world championships where Filipe Silva of Brazil used dolphin kick at the end of his 50 meter breaststroke to help him win gold. No action was taken. But, in Silva’s case and in Kitajima’s case, they did not admit to an infraction. Should action be taken when a competitor admits to knowingly breaking the rules? It seems the only circumstance they will strip a medal after the fact is for doping. I don't know why doping is the only cheating that receives this type of treatment, but I don't expect this occurance to change that practice.

What does this mean for Cameron van der Burgh's legacy? Well, it's not good. Every time someone thinks of who won that gold medal or who broke that world record, they will remember a cheater did it. Even though he wasn't the only person doing it, he won the race, and he will carry the label. It is unfortunate. Even with that nasty stain, it was an absolutely brilliant performance. I watched in complete awe. NBC had a fantastic shot of his turn, which I showed my son half a dozen times (thank you DVR). And the sickening part, he certainly would have won the gold medal without those illegal kicks. In the following days, he was faced with some difficult questions. His response was without apology or regret. He feels justified in his actions, using the notion that others are doing it, and he can't afford to give up that competitive advantage. I understand his delima, but it hardly gets him off the hook for me. Like it or not, as an elite athlete, you are a role model. Chosing to cheat, getting caught cheating, and being unapologetic about it sends an awful message to impressionable young athletes. I have heard from several sources Cameron is a good, decent young man. I have no reason to doubt that. But even the best men occassional make the wrong call.

Will FINA make changes for the future? Maybe. This is an embarassment for FINA. Athletes are competing outside of the rules. The only people with the power to do something about it, the officials on deck, can not see it while everyone else in the world can. Following the Kitajima controversy in 2004, FINA decided since the deck officials can't see a dolphin kick during the pull out, they will just change the rules to allow it.  Will they decide to allow more kicks? I hope not. I really, really hope not. A seemingly obvious solution would be to allow video review, and let the officals have access to what the rest of the world sees. And why not? Sound familiar baseball fans? So far, much like MLB, FINA has been resistant to allow video review. MLB has slowly allowed limted video review, maybe FINA will get on board with that as well. That is my hope. In fact, I hope they reverse the rule change from 2006, and take dolphin kick out of breaststroke for good. And I'm not just saying that because I'm a breaststroker whose dolphin kick is just plain awful!
Tony, have you done this? Would you ever do it? No, I have never used an illegal dolphin kick in breaststroke. And I don't intend to. But, I'm not going to get on my high horse and label Cameron van der Burgh as evil. You have to understand, I've never had a race with stakes nearly as high as an Olympic final, and being a strong contender for gold. Put in that position, and knowing my competition would cheat, would I choose to cheat? I can't answer that. I hope I wouldn't. Know this, if you are racing me, go ahead and use illegal kicks against me. It doesn't matter to me. I will try to beat you, and I'll do it fair and square.


  1. He even said that there was underwater video at a meet at 2010 and nobody tried the multiple dolphin kicks. Seems like there is an obvious solution for FINA...

  2. Update! Good News!