By Philip Whitten//Contributor | Friday, April 28, 2017
Swimming is a game of microseconds, a sport in which the difference between Olympic glory and soon-forgotten “also-swam” finishes is measured in tiny fractions of a second.
During the first half of the 20th century, swimming got steadily faster, but it was the National Age Group program, initiated in 1948, that gave the sport the impetus it needed. Young, talented athletes first trickled, then poured into the programs, which were popping up all around the country. Bigger, better athletes were recruited and serious, scientific research, mainly in Australia and the USA, began being conducted, with results shared within the small, international research community. Studies of everything having to do with propelling a human body through water most efficiently were initiated – from hydrodynamics to creating nutritionally sound diets designed to help athletes recover speedily from hard training, to identifying the elements of the optimal swimming body.
The sport grew steadily in popularity, especially as times dropped faster than anyone had predicted. But it wasn’t just the fastest swimmers who excited swimming aficionados. It was the depth of talent. Previously there might be a world-class swimmer with three or four would-be challengers floundering in his wake in a particular region of the country. Now, however, though the same athlete still might be ranked No. 1, he might have 15 or 20 challengers nipping at his heels.
There were several “near-ties” before the 1970s, but FINA and the IOC were able to resolve most of them to the satisfaction, sometimes to the begrudging satisfaction, of all concerned. Six judges, all with views of the finish, were stationed around the pool. At the end of the race, each official would write down the order of finish as he saw it. As a backup, cameras were ready to supply pictures of any “photo finishes.”
At the Rome Olympics in 1960, the 100-meter free came down to a showdown between Australia’s John Devitt and the USA’s Lance Larson. As expected the race was very close: three of the judges had Devitt first and Larson second. The other three saw it in reverse order, with Larson the winner. The photos were inconclusive. Finally, a seventh judge, who was not certified to judge finishes and who was unable even to see the finish from his vantage point, cast an invalid ballot for the Aussie. Despite the ensuing uproar, along with movies that clearly show Larson touching first, that result never changed.
The 1984 Games in Los Angeles saw another tie, this time in the women’s 100 meter free, when Americans Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead hit the pads simultaneously in 55.92. Both young women were elated by the tie, especially since it involved two swimmers from the same country.
Sixteen years later, at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, two swimmers from the same team – the Phoenix Swim Club -- touched in tandem in 21.98 seconds in the 50-meter free. Commenting on his tie with Anthony Ervin, Gary Hall, Jr. asked: “How can it get any better than that? We are the best of friends, we have the same coach, (Mike Bottom), we do the same workouts, we race each other every day, every set, every repeat.” Added Ervin: “In the minds of swim fans, this moment will always define who we are.”
Meanwhile, swimming continued to grow ever more competitive – in fact, much more competitive – especially since the 1980s. Many, if not most championship-level races, even longer ones, are decided by a stroke or two, so swimmers must not only be superb athletes, they must become swimming scientists, managing and constantly monitoring themselves and making appropriate adjustments in a three-dimensional environment.
Swimming and swimmers have become much more sophisticated in recent years, and many races have gotten even closer than in the past. Ties, once the rarest of events, have become increasingly common. In the last five Olympiads, there have been nine ties, including an unprecedented three-way finish for silver in the men’s 100 meter butterfly in 2016. But that is by no means the whole story. In addition to the ties, since the year 2000, there have been 21 other Olympic races decided by a tenth of a second, or less, and 33 decided by two-tenths of a second or less. All indications are races will only get tighter in the future.