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Underwater Cameras: On Hold Again?

Feb 25, 2013  - Craig Lord

FINA's ruling Bureau is said to have rejected the use of underwater cameras in rulings on disqualification, disputes and appeals at its latest meeting in Spain.

A final decision, however, will be made by the FINA Technical Congress, to be held on the eve of the World Championships in July. Debate will rumble on until the moment the die is cast.

The Bureau's recommendation carries some weight, though events in Rome in 2009 proved that Congress is capable of making up its own minds, an overwhelming vote having led to a ban on bodysuits and non-textile materials despite the wishes of some at the helm of the Bureau.

If the whisper heard by SwimNews about the Bureau's view on cameras is correct, FINA is in for turbulent times ahead given that its decision comes more than a decade after the first calls for cameras to be used to decide controversial cases. The move to include cameras in decision making has the widespread support of coaches and swimmers. 

One source told SwimNews that a rejection of underwater camera technology, tried and tested successfully in the United States and elsewhere, would leave the sport looking "amateur" in a new age.

The issue kicked off at the London 2012 Olympic Games after underwater footage appeared to show several swimmers in the men's 100m breaststroke final dolphin kicking furiously into their underwater pull, against the interpretation of a rule and advice given to start judges. 

FINA rules, which are Olympic rules, allow one dolphin kick at the start of breaststroke. The intensity of the wave created propels the swimmers forward faster underwater than if they were on the surface of the water. 

In London, several swimmers took several dolphin kicks but none of that was visible to officials on the deck because of the splash and turbulence created when the swimmer dives into the water. The multiple kicking could only be seen on the underwater cameras used for broadcasting. 

Van der Burgh admitted to taking more than one kick into the underwater pull phase of his start on his way to a world record victory in 58.46secs.  

Here are our contemporary notes from the Games in London:

The FINA rule is somewhat ambiguous. SW7.1 states: After the start and after each turn… A single kick is permitted during the first arm stroke, followed by a breaststroke kick. There is nothing to say that breaststrokers cannot do dolphin kicks before the arms are engaged, dolphin kicking allowed at starts and turns in all other strokes.

Van der Burgh, in common with others in the final and in several other major finals at world level over the past several years, kicks furiously during the glide phase of his dive, arms outstretched before him. Whether he then takes more than one butterfly kick "during the first arm stroke" is debatable. 

The deck judges cannot see that dolphin kick on the glide phase because of the splash at the surface of the water. It would take underwater video analysis to show that it did indeed happen. Even then, the rule does not specifically bar dolphin kicks in the glide phase of the dive.

That Van der Burgh has admitted to kicking at that point of his dive tells us that he feels safe. And he is: no-one lodged a protest and there is now no official case to answer. Look along most breaststroke line-ups and you will see world-class swimmerets doing what Van der Burgh did, though perhaps somewhat less efficiently.

Asked about his dolphin kicking by reporters, among them Brazilians and Australians pointing to the video, Van der Burgh told reporters at the London Aquatics Centre this morning: "I think every single swimmer does that. At the point of time before the fly kick was legal, [Kosuke] Kitajima was doing it and the Americans were complaining. I think its pretty funny of the Australians to complain because in the underwater footage if you look at Brenton Rickard in the lane next to me he's doing the exact same thing as me and yet they are turning a blind eye.

"It's got to the point where if you are not doing it you are falling behind or giving yourself a disadvantage. Everyone is pushing the rules and pushing the boundaries and if you are not doing it you are not trying hard enough.

"For instance me, I lost my 50 breaststroke (title) last year because a Brazilian swimmer did fly kicks and beat me and I think only if you can bring in underwater footage that's when people will stop doing it. We will have piece of mind to say I don't need to do it because not everyone else is doing it and it's a fair playing field.

"Everybody does it, well if not everybody 99 percent of them. If you are not doing it you are falling behind and giving yourself a disadvantage. For me, it's not obviously, shall we say, the moral thing to do but I'm not willing to sacrifice my personal performance and four years of hard work for someone else who is willing to do it and get away with it and has proven to get away with it as they did last year."

Van der Burgh believed that introducing obligatory official underwater video of all major races would help render the rule enforceable. 

"It was two years ago in Stockholm at the World Cup [when they used video footage to decide whether a swimmer had broken the rules] and it was really awesome because nobody attempted it and it was the first time that it was really clean. They used underwater footage. We all came up clean and we all had piece of mind that nobody was going to try it. I'm really for it if they can bring it in, I"m all for it, it will better the sport, but like I say I'm not willing to lose to someone who is doing it, who has done it to me before .''seconds.

As the fastest qualifier for the Olympic final, van der Burgh swam in lane four, which is lined with numerous television and still cameras that clearly documented the infraction. But the cameras are for TV use only, and the judges cannot look at the images.

The story takes up from there.

"Judges can only judge what they see," Cornel Marculescu, the executive director of swimming governing body FINA, told reporters in London. "They cannot judge what they don't see." Quite so. Which is why cameras could help.

The issue has rumbled on for a long time, among notable moments these:

  • a 2001 relay controversy in which Great Britain's women took the 4x200m freestyle world title in Fukuoka after Australia and the USA were DQd. The USA's appeal was rejected but FINA later awarded the quartet honorary gold medals, while Britain remained world champions.
  • a 2004 controversy in which Aaron Peirsol (USA) was DQd for turning over too soon on his way into the turns of the 200m backstroke final - and then reinstated when paperwork noting what he had done wrong proved as watertight as a sieve. 
  • a second 2004 Athens Games moment when Peirsol accused Japanese winner of the 100m breaststroke, Kosuke Kitajima, of using a dolphin kick at the start of his race after watching teammate and world record-holder Brendan Hansen finish second.
  • a 2005 world championship controversy in which Otylia Jędrzejczak (POL) won the 200m butterfly by a whisker ahead of Jess Schipper (AUS) after finishing her race with what looked like a single-arm freestyle pull, a move that went unseen by deckside officials but was caught on underwater cameras in coverage then barred from the appeals process.

FINA indicated that it wanted to install underwater video use at the 2009 and 2011 world championships but among barriers were complaints of host broadcasters over costs, with some suggesting that three cameras would be needed in each of the eight lanes of a final.

"This is something to be looked at by the technical swimming committee," Marculescu said in London. 

By July, it will be the Technical Congress and representatives from something approaching 200 countries that will decide whether to adopt the good side of technological advancement in the interests of fair play.