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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1 year ago

Why was she doing this double in the first place? I can understand if the team was competing for first and needed the points to help secure the win, but is there a trophy for third or fourth place? Why put the swimmer in this position to have to destroy her legs in a 100 Backstroke, to turn around and do the 200 Fly approximately 15 minutes later?

1 year ago

Ex-official here: our overriding principles are “benefit of the doubt goes to the swimmer” and “we’re here to observe, not enforce.”

I wasn’t there, so maybe she said something, but she could have also cramped. I watched a head ref almost kick a kid out of a meet as he mistook the kid celebrating a huge best time with being pissed.

I’d agree with another poster who recommended NCAA drop the rule. There’re already rules for unsportsmanlike and this rule is broken is most high end prelims.

Reply to  Exswimmerish
1 year ago

We found the guy who rushed straight to the comments without reading the article to declare his expertise.

Pretty clear that she didn’t cramp, given the mockery of a celebration she made after swimming 1:02.

Read below the video.

1 year ago

Coaches should never tell their swimmers that it’s ok to give less than their best effort.

1 year ago

I agree with this call! I also think that some of the prelims sandbagger swims should be DQ’d. Honest effort is honest effort. You shouldn’t be dropping 6-8 sec between prelims and finals in a 200. Happens all the time!

1 year ago

How about relay swims at last chance meets? Check a few of those non-leadoff splits at some of those (when it’s obvious the team is giving the leadoff swimmer another chance to qualify for NCAAs). It’s a mockery of the sport and the qualification process.

1 year ago

I think she gave an honest effort! Who wouldn’t celebrate after going faster than an in-season Ryan Lochte?

B1G Daddy
1 year ago

I never cease to be amazed by an adult’s need to insert themselves. This ref clearly needed to be recognized last night. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to stand on the deck and watch the kids get all the attention.

Regardless, Miriam will be at NCAA’s. Will the stuff who DQ’d her?

Ray Bosse
Reply to  B1G Daddy
1 year ago

Officials do not DQ someone to gain attention for themselves. Believe me, that last thing you want to do is have to make a call like this. You know you are inviting criticism. However, I support the call. If the coaches do not like the honest effort rule, take it out of the rule book. Coaches can make changes to the rules, officials just enforce what rules the coaches vote for.
I have made this call in the past and have had the coach blame me for it being on the rule book! Sorry guys you write the rule book!

Reply to  B1G Daddy
1 year ago

Are you serious? Officials don’t DQ swimmers to get personal attention. They are there to maintain an even playing field. This swimmer celebrated unnecessarily and disrespectfully at the end of the race, which is ridiculous considering her time. The celebration wasn’t cute and it’s nice to see the officials DQ an athlete where the only purpose was to get the 8th place points and not maintain the integrity of our sport. Other athletes would have made it look a little more authentic if they were going to in fact throw their race. Ryan Murphy went slower in finals of the 100 back at high school state his senior year so Bolles could go for the national high school record in… Read more »

1 year ago

Bad call on NU coaches. Gotta play the game right!