In a rare move, Swimming Australia has made a public comment disputing a disqualification at the World Championships, calling the decision “unjust.”
“McKeown and Australian officials are labelling her disqualification as unjust after judges ruled a stroke violation in her transition from backstroke to breaststroke in a semi-final on Sunday night,” a press release from the governing body on Monday read, and they might have a point.
And not because McKeown’s turn was illegal – it probably was, though very close.
It was because American Alex Walsh, the silver medalist in Monday’s final, had an illegal technique in the same turn in the lane right next to her in the semi-final – and was perhaps even more blatantly illegal early in the final.
The ruling that McKeown was disqualified for came on the backstroke-to-breaststroke turn while using a technique called the Crossover Turn. In short, that technique allows a swimmer to touch on their back just passing vertical for a rotation to their stomach, and then doing a quick flipturn. Most of the world’s elite IM’ers use that turn now.
Screenshots of race video from McKeown and Walsh just before the turn reveal that both were rotated past the point of verticality in the semi-final, and Walsh was even moreso past vertical in the final.
McKeown Semi-Final (Called)
Walsh Semi-Final (Uncalled)
Walsh Final (Uncalled)
All three look past-vertical prior to the touch. In real-time, McKeown’s was probably the most obvious because she initiated the turn so early (Michael Phelps in the NBC booth posited that she had a brain-blank and started a backstroke turn before trying to salvage a crossover turn).
But her hips, at least, were still sort of vertical, and on screencapture, hers looks less egregious than those of Walsh.
Australian National Team coach Rohan Tayor publicly challenged the call, saying “I disagree, 100 percent.”
It’s probably very close. I don’t think any neutral observer would disagree 100 percent. But there’s some room, at least, for disagreement.
World Aquatics confirmed on Monday that McKeown’s disqualification was initiated from the video replay booth, not the officials on deck, and those same video replay officials seem to have missed Walsh’s infraction next to her.
Swim fans should be rioting at the inconsistency. In the NBA, federal investigations would be launched. If this were soccer, international courts would pursue match-fixing complaints. Not that officiating is perfect in either of those leagues, but at least the video replay systems seem to usually work.
Instead, the reaction in swimming is usually to simply make the rules more lenient in reaction, as was seen with Kosuke Kitajima and the dolphin kick on breaststroke, or Justin Ress’ backstroke finish at last year’s World Championships.
While that certainly makes it easier to not disqualify athletes, it seems like the tools to call the existing rules consistently exist in most cases (maybe not in breaststroke dolphin kicks because of the fine line), but that technology isn’t being utilized properly.
In absence of McKeown in the final, American Kate Douglass won in 2:07.17, Walsh was 2nd in 2:07.97, and China’s Yu Yiting was 3rd in 2:08.74.
McKeown Moving Forward
“I had a bit of a cry,” McKeown said after her 100m backstroke heat swim on Monday in Fukuoka. “A bit of an emotional rollercoaster but it’s sport and it’s what happens in sport. Unfortunately some people just get the bad hand and I got dealt that bad hand.
“It’s just a matter of trying to flip it into a positive. We have footage and other angles that say otherwise to what the officials saw.”
Swimming governing bodies have consistently refused to release all angles used to make calls in the pool, so the rest of the world is left with public television angles to review those decisions.