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Cecil M. Colwin

After the 1956 Olympics, where several breaststroke swimmers spent most of their time in underwater swimming, a new saga of rule-making ensued as attempts were made to eliminate underwater swimming. This saga was to last for the next thirty years.

In February 1957, the FINA Technical Swimming Committee (TSC) recommended to the FINA Congress that "no underwater swimming be allowed in breaststroke and butterfly events."

Apparently the big problem facing FINA's rule-makers was the semantics of describing when a swimmer's head was, or was not, submerged under the surface.

First, it was ruled that part of the head should always break the surface of the water. This resulted not only in a stilted action, but in the swimmers having to hold their heads too high, thus reducing the body's streamlining. Some swimmers were even disqualified when their heads disappeared under their own bow waves.

The result was a big debate as to when a swimmer's head was "above the general water level." This rather nebulous description was later changed to read the head should "always break the surface of the water." (AIPS Swim Bulletin, 1979)

It was hoped that the FINA Congress in Moscow during the 1980 Olympics would solve this problem. The TSC had proposed that "part of the head should break the surface of the water during each complete stroke." Instead, the Congress decided that "part of the head shall break the surface of the water throughout the race..." This decision was really no different from the old rule.

Then salvation came from an unexpected source when Howard Hanson, an Australian coach at the Curl Curl ASA in Sydney, writing in the Australian Speedo magazine The International Swimmer, said that the remedy suggested at the Moscow meeting of FINA "was worse than the original complaint," and he offered the following solution: "Would it not be better to provide that: 'A part of the head or body shall be above the general surface of the water at least once during each arm stroke.' This would effectively prevent underwater swimming and make judging possible." Using wording not much different from that suggested by Coach Hanson, FINA finally got it right on 15 February, 1987, when the breaststroke head rule was changed to read: "During each complete cycle of one arm stroke and one leg kick, some part of the head of the swimmer shall break the surface of the water..." (AIPS Swim Bulletin, 1987)

In February 1957, FINA rejected a peculiar proposal from West Germany that either breaststroke kick or up and down movements of the legs and feet in the vertical plane be allowed in the butterfly. Had it been accepted, this proposal would have been a regressive step.

In December 1963, seven years after dolphin-butterfly had become an accepted event, FINA made the curious announcement that "a mixture of frog-kicks with dolphin-kicks in butterfly and with crawl-kicks in backstroke shall be allowed, even in one and the same race." After closer scrutiny, it appeared that what FINA was actually saying was that butterfly swimmers could either use breaststroke or dolphin kick, and that backstroke swimmers could use either an inverted breaststroke kick, dolphin-kick, or crawl-kick (presumably by "crawl-kicks" they meant an inverted flutter kick, but your guess is as good as mine).

At the 1964 IOC meeting in Tokyo, the IOC proposed to fix a total maximum number of participants at the Olympic Games at 5000 or 6000 participants, and to divide the figure on a percentage scale for each sport. Swimming, diving, and water polo would have a 12% share of the participants. The FINA bureau accepted the principle of reduction but not the idea of a permanent fixed percentage for each sport. FINA's viewpoint was that some sports were continually developing, while others were "stagnant and some were regressing." FINA said that it would present this viewpoint in a letter proposing "a fixed number of athletes to be decided and a percentage for each sport to be fixed every four years." FINA also said that it would defend this proposal before the IOC.

Why Did It Take 21 Years to Accept
"Dolphin Butterfly"?

While the butterfly-breaststroke controversy raged on for so many years, many people had seemed to miss the point that butterfly-breaststroke was really a hybrid stroke, half butterfly arm action and half breaststroke kick, that had come into being through a loophole in the rules. Moreover, it was a very difficult and strenuous stroke to swim. Not only did the timing of the arms and legs not combine easily, but the resultant action caused an inclined body position that created undue resistance. In addition, the breaststroke leg kick set up a retarding action that did not fit naturally with the continuous movement of the flying arms. The rapid frog-kick caused swirls in the water that made it difficult to judge the legality of the leg-action.

In 1935, coach David Armbruster and his pupil, Jack Sieg, developed an entirely new leg action that could best be described as a "simultaneous, undulating action similar to a double crawl kick." This action became known as the dolphin kick, and when combined with the butterfly arm action, it provided a perfectly timed combination of arm and leg action.

In 1935, coach David Armbruster and his pupil, Jack Sieg, developed an entirely new leg action.
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © ISHOF

Knowing that the butterfly-dolphin already existed, and that it was an advance over the butterfly-breaststroke, why was it not included in the Olympic program as an entirely new event? Not only would such an action have preserved the conventional breaststroke, but it would have been eminently fair to orthodox breaststroke swimmers whose future careers depended on its retention.

The answer, as we have seen, is that the IOC had told FINA that it did not want to increase the number of Olympic swimming events, and it was only after the IOC had refused to allow butterfly as a separate event at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics that FINA finally told the IOC in somewhat strong terms that, in the future, "the natural development of sport must be taken into consideration." Meanwhile, dolphin-butterfly, a much faster and more natural form of butterfly than butterfly-breaststroke, was literally forced to "wait in the wings" for the best part of 21 years. (A long time, even given the fact that for six of those years, World War II was in progress.)

The new "dolphin-butterfly stroke" was well known to the swimming public at the time. The technique had been described in fine detail in Armbruster's bestselling book, Competitive Swimming and Diving (1942), complete with expert line drawings based on motion film studies. Much earlier, there had also been detailed descriptions of the stroke in two authoritative publications. (Armbruster, D.A. and Jack Sieg, 1935 and Armbruster, D.A., 1937)

The big question is: Why did it take two decades for this new stroke, the dolphin-butterfly, to be recognized and accepted as an Olympic event?

The main answer is that the IOC steadfastly and persistently refused to increase the number of events. There were several other possible reasons. In the first instance, the butterfly-breaststroke, because it met the requirements of the breaststroke rules whereas the dolphin-butterfly did not, had staked first claim for inclusion in the program. Also, it was potentially easier to include the butterfly-breaststroke in the program than to have to lobby the IOC, as well as the rest of the swimming world, for the inclusion of an extra event.

Another factor was the immediate endorsement given the butterfly-breaststroke by many prominent coaches and officials in the United States, who praised it as a stroke invented by the athletes themselves.

The dolphin-butterfly, on the other hand, had failed to win spontaneous acclaim because it was incorrectly perceived to be too technically advanced for ready acceptance. However, if at that stage provision had been made for exhibition events as well as special teaching sessions, the dolphin-butterfly may well have been adopted earlier.

Even now, as competitive swimming reaches the end of the millenium and our biomechanical knowledge of swimming techniques is far more advanced than it was half a century ago, we still have not learned how to examine new techniques before incorporating them into the swimming program.

There is a need for FINA to introduce exhibition events at which new techniques, with a high speed potential, can be tested and experimented with, prior to inclusion in the general program. This course of action would give innovative swimmers a chance to demonstrate new techniques that might prove worthy of inclusion in the program. Such a process would be better than permitting the introduction of revolutionary techniques into an existing event, even though they may temporarily fit through a loophole in the rules.

Those who have studied The 50-Year Saga of the Breaststroke Rules" may realize that there is a lesson to be learned therein. Unfortunately, this lesson has still not been learned.

The lesson is simply this: it is essential to close any apparent loophole in the rules immediately, especially when a particular loophole results in the obvious inclusion of "a new event within an event."


1936 Olympic Games

At the Berlin Olympic Games, world-record-holder Jack Kasley was eliminated from the final of the Men's 200 metres breaststroke. The event was won by Tetsuo Hamuro of Japan in 2:42.5, a time that eclipsed the Olympic and world records. Close behind Hamuro was Erwin Sietas of Germany with a time of 2:42.9. Reizo Koike of Japan was third, narrowly beating the much-favoured American, John Higgins, into fourth place. All four swimmers repeatedly used the butterfly stroke to put on a spurt. Erwin Seitas' butterfly style was described as "not very graceful."

1948 Olympic Games

In the first post-war Olympics in London, seven of the eight finalists swam butterfly-breaststroke in the 200 metres breaststroke event. America made a clean sweep when Joe Verdeur, 2:39.3, Keith Carter, 2:40.2, and Bob Sohl, 2:43.9, finished in that order, all swimming the breaststroke-butterfly stroke from start to finish. The New York Times, on August 8, 1948, described Verdeur's stroke as follows: "His peculiarly loose arm and shoulder movement showed to full advantage as he rose at the end of each stroke and then submerged again for his kick."

1952 Olympic Games

In the Olympic Games in Helsinki, all eight finalists swam butterfly-breaststroke. (Oppenheim, 1962). The event was won by John Davies, AUS, in 2:34.4, followed by Bowen Stassforth, USA, (2:34.7) and Herbert Klein, GER (2:35.9).

1956 Olympic Games

At the Melbourne Olympics, with orthodox breaststroke and butterfly now finally established as separate events, some breaststroke swimmers returned to underwater swimming, after the fashion of Tsuruta and Ildefonso in the pre-war era, but with the significant difference that they were "rarely to be seen above the surface." The winner of the event, Masaru Furukawa, aptly named "the submarine" after performing a series of long swims and surfacing only occasionally to take a breath, came up to touch at the finish, only two surface strokes away from the wall. The winner was Masaru Furukawa, JPN, in 2:34.7, followed by Masahiro Yoshimura, JPN (2:36.7), and Kharis Yunichev, URS (2:36.8).

1960 Olympic Games

At the Rome Olympics William Mulliken, 21, became the first American to win the Olympic breaststroke title (in 2:37.4) since Joe Verdeur finished first in 1948 at the London Olympics. Since Joe Verdeur used a "half-butterfly" stroke, or "half-breaststroke" (take your pick), this was the first United States conventional breaststroke triumph since Bob Skelton took the 1924 Olympic title.) (New York Times, Sept. 1, 1960)

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