The Lochte Rule Is The Worst Rule In Sports

It’s hyperbolic to say. But that doesn’t make it untrue.

The ‘Lochte Rule’ being enforced in IM races across the world is hands-down the worst rule in any elite sport

Tonight, it caused an absolute clownshow, with a total of 5 DQs within four heats, including one that bounced Ella Eastin off of the World Championships team. But while that slew of DQs is dissatisfying to fans, it’s not necessarily a reason to throw out the rule. If five breaststrokers take three dolphin kicks apiece off of each wall and all five get disqualified, that’s not a bad reflection on the rule.

But this isn’t a case of five swimmers incorporating a technique that will be illegal in any breaststroke race or leg they ever swim. Tonight’s string of DQs was penalizing the textbook technique used in every other freestyle race. Tonight’s circus isn’t by itself reason to abolish the rule, but the fact that at least seven different swimmers at the highest level of American competition were nabbed for the same technique is certainly evidence that the rule is punishing good technique.

One note: this isn’t a criticism of the officials at U.S. Nationals (who have by-and-large done a terrific job this week) or at officials in general. It’s also not a shot at USA Swimming. Both USA Swimming and its officials are enforcing the rule as best they possibly can. But this is a strong call against the rule itself, which serves no useful purpose in the sport of swimming.

Background: The Lochte Rule

For those a bit lost, we’ll catch you up. The Lochte Rule was developed as a response to a new technique used by four-time 200 IM world champ Ryan Lochte in 2015. Lochte – whose best stroke much of his career was backstroke – and his coach David Marsh discovered that Lochte was faster underwater kicking on his back. So Lochte and Marsh innovated, changing Lochte’s race plan in freestyle races to do all of his underwater kicking on his back.

The technique has always been permissible in freestyle, where there are very few governing rules about the stroke. But FINA felt that the technique was in violation of IM rules. The so-called “Lochte Rule” is not actually a rule so much as FINA’s official interpretation of IM rules, which require an athlete to swim one-quarter (and no more than one-quarter) of the race in each of the four competitive strokes. FINA ruled that kicking on one’s back constituted backstroke, and doing so in the freestyle leg meant a swimmer was swimming more than one-quarter of the race in backstroke.

The Issue

The problem that has quickly arisen though, is that, applied to its full extent, that rule means that a swimmer cannot spend any time on his or her back underwater during the freestyle portion of an IM race. That’s a particular problem in the 400 IM, where swimmers take a freestyle-to-freestyle flip turn in the middle of the freestyle leg. The free-to-free flip turn is the stumbling block that has sunk plenty of technically sound IMers over the last four years, and it’s time for this poorly-conceived rule to be sunk itself. Here’s why:

It punishes good technique

Coaches at every level teach swimmers from age groupers to superstars that the flip turn is about getting on and off the wall as quickly and simply as possible. The natural movement of the flip turn is to do a somersault and push off the wall on one’s back, rolling over at some stage of the pushoff.

Coaches of young swimmers: how many times have you watched your swimmer somersault into the wall, then spend what feels like an eternity wriggling themselves back to a prone (face-down) position before pushing off to continue their race? I coach a high school team and can tell you from first-hand experience that it’s a constant struggle.

Simply put, good turn technique requires  a swimmer to be on their back at some point during the turn. The Lochte Rule essentially requires IMers to practice two different flip turns: a fast, technically-sound turn to use in freestyle and backstroke races and a slower, sloppier, more awkward turn that complies with IM rules.

That’s not a rule that serves the sport well. It’s an arbitrary, overly-complex rule that punishes the very technique encouraged by rules in other events.

It’s inconsistently called

Don’t take this as a slight to officials. Much like underwater dolphin kick rules on breaststroke, the Lochte Rule puts officials in an unwinnable situation, asking them to make judgement calls on a turn that is extremely hard and awkward to do under the letter of the law.

Not convinced? Watch this video from the men’s 400 IM final at the Rio Olympics. (We’d add the women’s race for comparison, but as many swim fans know all-too-well, the only Olympic race videos on YouTube are heavily edited highlight-reel cutups, and the women’s race skips this turn entirely. But that’s the subject of a different strongly-worded editorial).

(If the video doesn’t start at the right spot, check out :36 seconds for the free-to-free turn)

Race leaders Kosuke Hagino and Chase Kalisz do this turn about as well as they can possibly do it, getting to their stomachs quickly after the turn. But stop the video during the turn and you’ll almost-certainly find a point where at least one swimmer in the pool looks to be still on their back as they transition to their side for the push off.

Officials know this. Officials are fully aware that as the legs are coming over for the turn, every single swimmer in the pool is on his or her back for at least a split second. The Lochte Rule is now requiring officials to make split-second judgement calls on whether a swimmer stayed on his or her back too long. Why are we putting our officials in that situation? Who is this rule serving?

It’s stifling innovation

Swimming has a rich history of innovation. In the 1930s, swimmers started swimming breaststroke with their arms fully out of the water, giving birth to the butterfly stroke. In the 1960s, starts were all about gaining height and distance off the blocks, until coaches and swimmers figured out that hitting the water in a streamline was kind of important, too. (Just check out these classic starts from 1968 at 5:21 in this video!)

Innovation keeps sport exciting, and should be encouraged, not needlessly penalized. If Lochte’s technique is indeed so superior that it needs to be banned, why not let everyone try it? Since the beginning of swimming history, we’ve been finding newer and faster ways to get from one side of the pool to the other. Why are we afraid of this particular one? And what incentive is there for swimmers and coaches to innovate in the future if they fear their new ideas will only be promptly outlawed by the establishment?

Sport without innovation becomes stagnant. Would the NFL remain so overwhelmingly popular if the game were still dominated by the same run-heavy offenses that dominated the ’70s? One could argue that half the buzz around the NFL comes from the constantly-evolving strategies, the new techniques followed by the new counter-techniques, with the rewards to those who adapt quickest.

Worst Rule In Sports?

There’s a real argument to be made that the Lochte Rule is currently the worst rule in all of sports.

It’s reminiscent of the NFL’s catch rules, which have been regularly maligned and are almost universally unpopular among fans, players and coaches. Many players whose job is literally catching a ball don’t understand the convoluted rules that govern it.

But at least the catch rule, at its core, rewards the technique considered good in the sport. Catching a football is about demonstrating control over the football’s movement; if a player shows perfect technique of cradling the ball in his hands all the way through the end of the play, he’ll be rewarded with a reception. And at least the definition of a catch is uniform throughout the game. The NFL doesn’t have different rules for catching passes, pitches, punts and kicks, or different rules for catching the ball on offense or defense.

The Lochte Rule takes a turn that would be considered technically perfect in every other freestyle race, and makes it illegal smack-dab in the middle of a freestyle leg, merely because that turn is in an IM event. That’s not punishing rule-breakers; it’s a broken rule.

Major League Baseball has had its own rules kerfluffle recently with its slide rules, which prevent baserunners from using a slide to block a fielder from throwing out a teammate. Critics have said the rule penalizes technique on which players have been coached their whole lives (sounds familiar). But at least that rule has its basis in player safety. After all, it was implemented after a controversial slide caused an injury in the 2015 playoffs. It’s hard to fault a rule too much (even a bad rule) for being a failed attempt at keeping players safe.

But where’s the safety concern in the Lochte Rule? What egregious wrong is the rule preventing? What about that seemingly-innocuous technique is so bad that FINA felt the need to immediately prohibit it, even before Lochte had ever tried it in a world-level competition?

In today’s men’s and women’s 400 IMs, no less than 9 swimmers were disqualified. We were able to confirm that at least 7 of them were for the Lochte Rule. That included Eastin, who would have been second in the women’s 400 IM and booking her first trip to the World Championships. That included Abrahm Devinewho was disqualified out of prelims after taking 4th, robbing him of an A final spot and a shot at the World University Games. And Bethany Galat would have been a potential World University Games alternate, too, were she not DQ’d for the very same rule in the women’s A final.

Here’s a look at all of today’s 400 IM DQs.

Lochte Rule DQs today (7):

  • Women’s A Final: 2nd-place Ella Eastin
  • Women’s A Final: Bethany Galat
  • Women’s B Final: Kathryn Painter
  • Men’s B Final: Brennan Balogh
  • Men’s C Final: John Thomas Larson
  • Men’s Prelims: 4th-place Abrahm Devine
  • Women’s Prelims: Kate Krolikowski

We don’t know for sure if Lochte rule (2):

  • Men’s Prelims: Harry Homans
  • Men’s Prelims Michael Milinovich

Here’s video of the offending turn for Larson, a Minnesota high school state champ who will be a Texas Longhorn next year (he’s in the bottom lane):

It’s high time the Lochte Rule goes the same way as another much-hated NFL rule: The Tuck Rule. The tuck rule dealt with determining whether a football knocked out of a quarterback’s hands was considered a fumble or an incomplete pass – a massive swing in the game of American football.

NFL owners overwhelmingly voted to repeal the tuck rule in 2013, but only after more than a decade of complaints from fans, coaches and players alike. But the kicker is that the rule only created the amount of fury it did because it very controversially affected the outcome of several major playoff games.

We don’t need to wait until the Lochte Rule costs someone an Olympic gold medal or a world record to realize this rule is broken. It’s time the sport of swimming learns from the NFL and cuts bait on a poorly-constructed rule interpretation before it gets called on a significant international stage.

Right now, we’ve got the worst rule in all of sports. If FINA is truly trying to grow the sport among fans and sponsors, getting rid of it wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

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5 years ago

while this IS a rule, it is HURTING swimmers, preventing them from showing true potential and possibly creating new records.

5 years ago

There is a difference between natural and intentional movement. Based on the video of Larson, in my opinion he is NOT DQ for the reason that his take-off from the wall is so fast with strong take-off that his position is still on back upon leaving the wall.. There will will be a different position if the turning is made in semi-half turn wherein there is a possibility that will result to a position of the body on his/her side. A swimmer cannot change the body into breast position immediately while in the wall unless he/she leaves the wall

6 years ago

so how do coaches and swimmers go about and repeal this rule? Clearly this needs changed.

6 years ago

Pretty sure the entire sports community doesn’t care about swimming anyway, so it’s hardly the worst rule in all of sports. That is the excessive celebration penalty in football (a real sport).

6 years ago

The lochte rule was to clarify the breast to free transition turn.
He finished his breast leg, legally, and then essentially did a backstroke start.

The rule that is in play is that each transition is a legal finish and legal in water start for each individual stroke. A freestyle race must start with a forward start. This would imply past vertical to the breast when the feet leave the wall.

Remember, the flip turn is also used in backstroke when the swimmer is allowed to be past vertical to the breast.

Some one needs to go back and read the intent of the rule

BTW, I have 20 years’ experience as an official and even longer as a competitor

6 years ago

The rule is ridiculous. At 85, I swam competitively for over 55 years, and went through most of the rule changes. I go back to when fly was swum with the frog kick.

Mike Lee
6 years ago

Just watched the J.T. Larson clip and as a former USA Swimming official of several years, I’m truly surprised he was DQ’d, time on hisback was minimal! Less than a full kick, so what is the threshold? When was the offence committed?

Reply to  Mike Lee
6 years ago

No stroke nor kick is considered. The only thing that is looked at are the shoulders when the feet leave the wall. If they are past vertical towards the back, then the clarification of the rule is it is backstroke and in IM or MR during the freestyle the swimmer is DQed. I hate, hate this interpretation of what is considered to be backstroke during the freestyle in the IM. I think the NFHS has the better interpretation of the rule and that should be considered by USAS and FINA.

Tim Lewarchick
6 years ago

Get rid of the rule
It’s common sense

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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