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.