SwimSwam

A History of Cheating in the Men’s Breaststrokes

For those of you who haven’t seen the video yet, click here to watch Universal Sports’ replay of the men’s 50 breaststroke. If you scroll ahead to just after the two-minute mark, you can see that Felipe Silva clearly does a blatant butterfly kick, which is illegal.

Breaststroke kicks are one of the most difficult things for officials to judge from a pool deck, because the modern breaststroke has so much hip action that it blurs the line between breaststroke and butterfly. Da Silva’s kick was pretty blatant, and if you scroll to just after the 45 second mark you can see the above-the-water view from an overwater angle. With one official on each lane, that one should have been seen.

But before we start a lynch-mob to take Silva out to the woodshed, let’s take a step back. I’m not sure that a whole lot of breaststrokers who were in that race will be able to honestly make a fuss about the issue, and here’s why:

Check out this video of Alexander Dale Oen’s 100 breaststroke win. They don’t show us an underwater view of the finish, but they do give us a very clear view of the turn at about the :45 second mark. On Dale Oen’s final stroke into the wall (in the powder-blue suit), he clearly forces his legs in a downward thrust, which is the definition of a butterfly kick. Dale Oen went on to win an emotional gold medal in that race.

In fact, if you go back to the 50 breaststroke video above (the one that shows Silva’s finish) you can see at the top of the screen that Dale Oen does a butterfly kick there too into the finish. Though not nearly as blatant as Silva’s, you’d still have a hard argument that this was a legal finish if it was really focused on by a camera.

Silva’s was definitely a DQ, and it would be silly to pretend like Dale Oen’s offense was anywhere near as bad, but there are plenty of swimmers who do what could be characterized as a dolphin kick, especially compared to the few who are clearly within the rules.

I’m not picking on Dale Oen, he just happens to be the one who we have the most underwater-wall footage of. Who knows how many other swimmers execute a similar finish. We can see that Cameron van der Burgh is pretty clean on the breaststroke finish, but we really only get a good shot of four swimmers throughout the two races.

Here’s where the kick comes from: many swimmers have decided that it’s quicker to finish into the wall with a “half cycle” (perfectly lega) that involves no kick. With the way the modern breaststroke is designed with so much hip action, it’s almost impossible to NOT do a breaststroke kick going into a touch.

Cheating has almost become a part of the breaststroke culture, mostly  because the rules of the stroke are not easy to define. The breaststroke has always been a complex motion. Freestyle is in your lane, above the water. Backstroke is the same, on your back, aside from the turn. Butterfly becomes a little more complicated, but is still pretty basic: feet move simultaneously, elbows clear the water on the recovery.

Breaststroke, however, by its nature must allow for subjective judging and interpretation of the rules. This is why, since almost the beginning of the sport, competitive swimmers have pushed the limits of breaststroking. They always try to find a way to bend the rules to get an advantage, and then FINA must react by writing a new rule to further constrict the limitations. If you were to try and write a thorough rule book of what we all know breaststroke should look like, it would probably be half as long as the rest of the FINA rule book combined.

At the beginning of competitive swimming, the British swimmers swam some version of a breaststroke, and that’s what “swimming” was. Then the Americans learned a new type of aquatic locomotion from the Native Americans that the British refused to use because it was too splashy and uncivilized. But the Americans would dominate all of the races, and so freestyle was split off as a different discipline to maintain the integrity of the breaststroke.

Further in the 1930′s, 40′s and 50′s, swim coaches across the world (notably Dave Armbruster at the University of Iowa) began experimenting with an over-water recovery in the breaststroke, to which they eventually added a whiplike kick. The legality of this sort of motion was debated for years, though typically disqualified, was fuzzy until the powers-that-be finally relented after Jiro Nagasawa took 6th at the 1952 Olympics swimming effectively a butterfly stroke. In 1956, the butterfly was added to the Olympic program.

Then again in 2004, Kosuke Kitajima and his butterfly kick on the underwater pullout on the 100 breaststroke that gave him a huge advantage over his competitors. It could be seen clearly on underwater view, but above the pool was much more difficult to challenge. At the time he was a “cheater,” but now that race was a pioneering catalyst for change.

The only way to stop this is to use underwater cameras, yes. And everyone needs to be held to the same standard. Not everybody does this illegal kick into the finish, but it’s clearly not an isolated event. As we saw with Kitajima’s event, FINA as of late has been more apt to adapt the rule to the evolution of the stroke rather than force the stroke to conform to its rules, so perhaps they will legislate a butterfly kick into the finish. But they need to go one way or the other, because what you don’t want is for a certain group of athletes to have to feel like they must cheat to compete, while others get away with rules violations.

I don’t think that anybody should be ripping either Dale Oen’s or Silva’s victories, however. Go watch any basketball game, football game, soccer match, tennis match, or anything else in slow motion and from every camera angle, and it will become painfully evident that “it’s not cheating if you don’t get caught” is a prevailing rule in sports. I have no objection to FINA using underwater cameras to apply disqualifications, but won’t demean either man’s World Championship for being judged by a system that he wasn’t told he would be judged by.

Congratulations to both World Champions on their fine swims.

Comments

  1. Brint says:

    I see now that Dale Oen was definitely bending the rule till it broke. Of course, we don’t see this as as much of an issue as Silva’s because 1) it was blatantly mocking the rules 2) he was dominating anyway 3) Dale Oen was running out of room, while Silva could easily have taken another breaststroke kick, and most importantly 4) everybody likes Dale Oen a lot better than Silva.

  2. Brint says:

    Clearly we can’t have underwater video replay. That would disrupt the flow of the meet.

  3. Anthony says:

    There was a first year on the college team that I coached last year that would consistently do the same thing. It was his first time swimming in a yards pool, but I explained to him that he was running the risk of being disqualified because of the dolphin kick. It became less prevalent as the season progressed but would still occur. Fortunately it never came down to being disqualified but I would get a little anxious each time he did it in competition.

    I don’t know if this will cause FINA to change the rule. Kitajima’s dolphin kick happened at the Olympics and the media was all over it. There is increased coverage in the mainstream media now, but I don’t know if the backlash will be as much.

    I do agree with your assessment of the breaststroke rules and why the dolphin kick would happen on the half-stroke.

  4. reezynation says:

    Piersol was very outspoken over Kitajima’s dolphin kick in 04.. did some people think his DQ in some part a result of his comments.

  5. Paul says:

    I think it would be tough for the official to catch if they have their eyes on the touch at the time. Very difficult to watch the tips of the fingers for the simultaneous touch on the wall and and see the kick, especially if the kick is timed correctly for that reason.

  6. Joe Augustine says:

    Wow…. at about that 2:08 mark. How do you miss that!?! His feet even come up to the surface and splash like a dolphin kick would after he finishes… unbelievable

  7. NESWIM says:

    A few comments…it is legal to do a half cycle into the wall only if it falls within the cycle of pull followed by a breaststroke kick (I’m ignoring the Kitajima rule which allows for a butterfly kick during the pull after each start and off each wall)….you may not do a pull followed by a pull nor a breaststroke kick followed by another kick…just to be clear.

    Oen’s violation is, based on what I saw in the video tape, is a flutter kick not a butterfly kick…his feet separate and then alternate and that is not permitted. This is quite common among Age Group swimmers…they often let their feet float as they touch the wall. It’s less common among world class swimmers but does happen occasionally because they are transitioning from the finish of the kick into swinging their legs to start the turn (unlike age groupers they start their turn with their legs rather than the arms).

    None of the “stroke violations (sic)” cited above are “cheating”….anymore than a baseball fielder who traps the ball and the batter is called out is a cheater. To be a violation the infraction must be observed and it is impossible for an official to observe every infraction and that is just part of the “game”.

    Re this specific violation….it is extremely difficult to observe because, as pointed out in the comments above, because as the swimmer approaches the wall the eyes of the official begin to shift from the whole body to the touch and therefore they cannot see the kick (a similar problem occurs with the backstroke underwater finish for all but the most obvious bloopers).

    A similar problem exists off the start and each wall where it can be difficult to see, especially with world class swimmers, whether the swimmer has separated their hands to begin the pull, some are trained to start the fly kick with hands locked…(the rule is that the butterfly kick is only permitted during the pull which is defined as any lateral or downward movement of the hands).

    I would be in favor of limited use of video judging for the specific purpose of examining the butterfly kick during the pull phase off the start and each wall and the proper kick into the finish. This is akin to the limited use of video replay in baseball (e.g. home run calls).

  8. CoachErik says:

    “Piersol was very outspoken over Kitajima’s dolphin kick in 04.. did some people think his DQ in some part a result of his comments.”

    1st off: What? 2nd: Relevance?

  9. steve says:

    Piersol was DQ in the 200 back at 2004 for an ‘illegal turn’ and then it was overturned claiming a ‘clerical error due to a language barrier’

  10. Fernando de Barros Pereira says:

    What is this? A witch hunt? Why are you picking on Felipe. EVERBODY bends the dolphin kick rule. You are being naive.

  11. CoachErik says:

    Thank you Steve. I understand that, I watched the race (as a former backstroker, it was a borderline call that should have gone to the swimmer anyway) and read the reports. I just want to know why would one speculate that this decision was a by product of his opinion AND what does it add to the conversation?

  12. Amy Hays says:

    I’ve never understood those who think it’s alright to have a rule and then try to get away with breaking it. Cheating is only cheating when you get caught? Really? Either have the rule and enforce it correctly (call those who cheat cheaters) or don’t have the rule in the first place. That was such a blatant dolphin kick – I have no problem calling da silva what he is–a cheater.

  13. OC Mike says:

    Most of us sound to be from the USA from our use of our language but have you looked at Soni’s turn where she was too far from the wall to keep up her gliding speed so she instinctively down kicked, with her legs together without turning the toes out but with the top of the foot clearly in propulsive mode…we all do this in breast pull/dolphin practice sets! This is called a dolphin kick. To be fair, how should this be called?

  14. [...] evening’s prelim, but was DQ’ed for an illegal kick headed into his turn. After the controversy following his finish in Shanghai, and now this disqualification, he (and everyone else) are going to have to be very careful about [...]

  15. [...] a sport that has always been about pushing the limits of the rules and trying to gain advantages (read that here).It’s one of the few strokes where the form even allows such variations.FINA apparently [...]

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