A Closer Look at ‘Honest Effort’

Friday at the Women’s Big Ten Swimming & Diving Championship meet saw a rare application of the “honest effort” rule. In the women’s 100 backstroke, Miriam Guevara of Northwestern was disqualified in the final heat for “failure to show an honest effort.”

Under the “Ethical Behavior of Coaches and Student-Athletes” in the NCAA Swimming & Diving rulebook is a clause that states:

“Coaches are to ensure student-athletes put forth an honest effort in all competitions. Failure to show an honest effort could be considered an act of improper conduct (Rule 2-5-6) and result in disqualification and/or disciplinary action by the referee or meet committee.”

In prelims Guevara qualified fourth in the 100 back with a time of 53.10. She also swam the 200 butterfly that session qualifying second in 1:56.12. At finals she swam a 1:02.44 in the backstroke and in effect, sacrificing the backstroke so she could focus on the 200 butterfly. This is where an official took umbrage — Guevara swimming over nine seconds slower than her prelims time to perform better on the 200 butterfly. Here is a video courtesy of Wisconsin Swimming & Diving. Note: Guevara is swimming in the lane third from the bottom:

While the Big Ten Network zoomed in on the winner Bacon, what isn’t seen on the video is that Guevara, after swimming her 1:02, engaged in a ‘faux celebration,’ slapping the water as if to mimic the actions of a swimmer who is excited about their result.

Ultimately, it’s probably this ‘celebration’ of the 1:02, drawing more attention to her swim, that caught the officials’ ire and drew the disqualification. We’ll never know what would have happened with a 1:02 and no theatrics afterward, but that sort of action can push the swim from “good gamesmanship” to “bad sportsmanship.” Celebrating a 1:02 also removes any doubt that it was intentional.

It’s the reason why the International Swimming League has point penalties for swimmers who don’t meet minimum times.

While the rule is rarely enforced, it has been invoked before. At the 1994 SEC Championships (results here), Auburn sophomore Oliver Gumbrill was disqualified for not giving a full effort in the 200 free A final. He qualified 8th for the final in 1:38.23 as one of 5 Auburn swimmers in the A final – meaning that by swimming full-speed, there wasn’t necessarily a ton of points to gain because he’d be jumping teammates.

Instead, he coasted to a 1:48.73 in the final, saving his energy for the 100 back B final later in the night. In that 100 back B final, he swam 50.26 to finish 10th overall. That was half-a-second and 4 places better than he was in prelims.

Auburn won that meet by 29 points over Florida.

The rule is ambiguous and extremely subjective to what an official determines to be an “honest effort.” That in-and-of-itself doesn’t disqualify it as a rule, as sporting rules books are littered with subjective calls, especially when it comes to conduct. The basketball rule books don’t define how many times a player has to complain about a call before getting a technical, for example.

But this rule as written specifically is extremely hard to define, because there are examples of athletes not giving “honest efforts” all over swimming, and it’s almost never called. In most rules involving subjectivity, there is at least an attempt at a definition. In the basketball example, there is at least some attempt made to clarify what is a conduct penalty and what is not, even if there is still subjectivity. The NBA rule book lists 17 subsections for what is a technical foul, and many of those subsections have further subsections trying to clarify specific actions that are frowned upon.

At the College Swim Coaches Association of American’s annual convention, the rule was discussed in divisional breakout groups in 2013 or 2014 to potentially change it. At the Division II level the discussion focused on the following points:

  • Swimmers that qualify in the Top-8 in prelims have earned their right to swim in the top heat and perform how they want.
  • Swimmers that intentionally do not swim as fast as they could in order to “save up” for an event are doing something noble — they are sacrificing individual success to help the team, particularly if the event they are focusing on is a relay.
  • There can be extenuating circumstances that we (those non involved with the specific swimmer or team) are unaware of — a sudden illness or injury. 
  • Due to the points above, swimmers in the top heat know that the worst they can finish is 8th place and those points can be valuable.

There will always be swimmers who swim less than 100% in a finals swim to focus on another event. I’ve seen a finals heat of the 100 free at a collegiate conference meet where two of the eight finalists swam times 3-4 seconds slower than their prelims swim to be fresh for the 400 free relay. 

The opposite of this is the swimmer who cruises through a prelims swim only to drop a large amount of time at finals. It can be argued that the swimmer did not give an honest effort in their prelims swim — should they retroactively be disqualified?

The issue of athletes not-trying on purpose is not limited to swimming. Sports are full of judgement calls, and sports are full of honest effort rules, so being the opinion of the official is not a disqualifier of the rule. 

We have all seen teams, particularly in the NBA and NFL “tank” to better secure a high draft pick. The NBA has also seen the recent trend of “load management” where players, often star players, sit out a game to be fresher for games further in the season, particularly the playoffs. 

Badminton, specifically, has had its share of controversies with its “honest effort” rule. At the 2012 London Olympics, eight players were disqualified for intentionally losing to gain a more advantageous draw in the quarterfinals of the tournament. RadioLab focused an entire episode on this phenomena.

In the original Freakonomics, a whole chapter was focused on Sumo wrestlers who lost matches on purpose so their opponents would achieve a better rating. 

These are just a few examples where athletes have found a way to give less in order to be in a position to better succeed in the future. Athletes and teams may see the long-term benefit to intentional losing but fans can see through it. These tactics can hurt the marketability of a team or an entire sport, and can hit at the core of sport itself.

While Friday saw this rule actually enforced, these “honest effort” rules serve a purpose in sport. They define the essence of what sports are. Coaches regularly ask their athletes to “give it their all,” particularly when an athlete is hurting and is tired. Athletes in all sports take pride in pushing themselves past their limits. This is what we strive for and fans want to be rewarded by seeing this effort from athletes.

There has been a lot of talk since the disqualification about the idea that a swimmer “owns” their spot in finals and can do with it what they like. That idea is already undercut by the fact that a DQ in an A final results in 0 points, rather than 8th-place points. Points aren’t awarded for prelims swims. They’re awarded for finals swims.

At the end of the day, the official had a judgement call to make, and based on the writing of the rules and what that official saw, especially the post-race celebration, a defensible call was made.

But at a minimum, better guidelines need to be given as to how and when the rule will be applied because it seems a near-certainty that she would have done something differently had she known she would be disqualified. Maybe that doesn’t mean going for the 53, but she probably would have at least swum a 57 or 58.

But this again leads us back to the circular problem. A 57 or 58 and quietly exiting the pool wouldn’t have truly been an “honest effort,” but it would have been enough to give the official an excuse to not make the call.

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Sean Justice
1 month ago

I am guessing it was the celebration that did it. If you are going to tank it, just tank it and don’t draw attention to yourself. I don’t think that you should be DQ’d for swimming slow or not giving an “honest effort”. They swam fast enough to get into top 8 and after that they should be able to do what they want.

Some may say that another swimmer would have done better in finals. Well, in that case, swim faster in prelims!

1 month ago

use this as an agree or disagree button

Last edited 1 month ago by yes
Reply to  yes
1 month ago

What about a disagree to agree button?

1 month ago

Seems to be an admission on the part of the swimmer and coach that she didn’t have the talent or training to pull off the double. I’m sure her competitors are happy to know that about her now.

Reply to  PMom
1 month ago

That is hilariously bad take. She got 2nd in the 200 fly, 4th in the 100 fly, qualified for the A final in what looks like her 3rd best event. NCAA qualifier. Also, that double is never on the cards at NCAA Championships.

B1G Daddy
Reply to  PMom
1 month ago

What an embarrassing take.

Sean Justice
Reply to  PMom
1 month ago

I would also add that the 200 fly/100 back combination would not exist in NCAAs and I think that this is the first time that BIG10s had this format.

So the “talent or training” idea probably doesn’t apply.