Encouraging Junior Swimming Through Cash Prize

The Thane Mayor Swimming Competitions incentivised junior swimming in the district level by giving out cash prize to the winners. This was a major boost to the swimming kids.

The Thane Mayor Swimming Championships is a big draw for swimming enthusiasts living in the district of Thane & Navi Mumbai. At the recently held Thane Mayor Swimming Championships, there were scores of swimmers from Under 6 to Under 17, competing with enthusiasm and spirit. One big factor for this zeal was the cash prize that was given to each of the three medalists in all the swimming events. A gold medal would get you ₹3,000; silver would come with ₹2000, and a bronze medal would be accompanied by a cheque of ₹1500. In total, there were 59 events organized over two days at the 50-meter Thane Club swimming pool. The total money pot spent by Thane Municipal Council as prize money was around ₹3,80,000.

The impact was there to be seen. The kids were eager to compete; the parents were all charged up; the coaches were anxious and exuberant. While a lot of schools are in the midst of their annual examinations cycle, but this did not bother kids, as they were here not just to compete but also to earn money.

Swimming isn’t given due credit as a sport in our nation, at least not given the weightage as a sport, say the way Cricket is or even for that matter Kabaddi. To be fair, swimming is a very non-viewer-friendly sport. Often, the races are speedy and end under-a-minute. I mean, you wait for a race to start for 15-20 minutes, and then it ends in 30 seconds. That’s too quick, and most of the time, you are unable even to view the swimmers properly, they all look the same once they are in the race. You know them only at the start and at the end. That’s it.

And then, unlike other sports where a dark horse could emerge from the unknown, the wins are reasonably predictable. Typically, the podium spots will keep rotating between a small set of individuals. The rest are like character artists in a Hollywood film; for instance, do you recall any actors that were terminated by the machines in the film War of the Worlds, while Tom Cruise was trying to save his backside? That’s the case with swimming. It is quite elitist, in that way.

But because swimming has not been given much focus or support, we as a nation are pretty terrible at it. According to the Australian Olympian Stephanie Rice, “the best result so far of India is about 24th in the world when it comes to Olympics”.

Take the case of Tokyo Olympics 2020 to be held in June and July. Not a single Indian swimmer has qualified for any of those 35 swimming events (70 races, as there are men and women races). Aquatics sports account for the maximum number of medals at the Olympics as a sporting event, and India does not even have a chance to compete forget winning in these closely-fought races.

One of the primary reasons why we don’t have great swimmers in India is because young-age swimming is not promoted in India, the way it could. There is no concerted effort taken by governments or sports bodies to find gifted swimmers and nurture them for the future. Competitions for swimmers are held chaotically, with no gains to be made by winners, except for glory.

In this context, the Thane Mayor Swimming Competition stands out. By giving out cash prizes to the young winners, they are incentivizing swimming for these young kids. Also, the prize money is made through cheque payment that will only be made to a winner’s account. So, this also coaxes many parents to open their kid’s bank accounts.

For swimmers living in Thane, there are only a couple of events that provide such incentives for winners, the other one being the Navi Mumbai Mayor Cup Swimming Championships. The competitions are galore, but the incentives are not. In this regard, kudos is due to Thane Municipal Council, TDAA, the organisers and Mayor Naresh Mhaske’s team for making this happen. The Thane event could be a blueprint for encouraging swimming at the junior-most level in India. It was heartening to see, 6-year kids waving the cheques with pride at the end of the award ceremony.

If India needs to make a mark on the global scene, junior swimming needs to be nurtured and promoted. And to do so, we need more such events that give not only medals but also an added incentive to the winners.

Fairplay in Sports: Nike’s Vaporfly vs Tech Body-suits

The Nike Vaporfly Shoes controversy is reminiscent of the Fully-body suit controversy in swimming. Do such ‘innovations’ add to the sports, or bring it down?

The World Aquatics Championship held in Rome, Italy, in 2009, will be forever etched in the history of swimming. It would be a dubious reason why it will be remembered, though. It was the meet at which world records tumbled like there was no tomorrow. Forty-three world records were set at the tournament, out of 40 events. The shocking part was that in the women’s 50 fly event, the world record was broken twice in the space of 5 minutes. In the end, there was hardly anyone that was left. But this meet was not a congregation of swimming mutants. It was your everyday champions that were competing against each other. The difference wasn’t in the swimmers but what these champions were wearing. All the participants except three were wearing the superbuoyant polyurethane suits. The high-tech suits enabled the swimmers to bring their times down in an utterly unbelievable manner.

The best instance of this triumph of technology over talent was in the 200 Metre Freestyle men’s event. German Paul Biedermann not only defeated the reigning Olympian and champion Michael Phelps but also shattered his WR. Bidermann clocked 1.42.00 and shaved off almost a second from the earlier record of Phelps, which stood at 1.42.96. In this race, Phelps came in for silver at 1.43.22.

Guess what the difference was. Paul Biederman was wearing the Arena X-Glide, one of the polyurethane suits that turn the swimmers’ bodies into sleek kayaks. It enabled Biedermann to drop 4 seconds from his earlier best in Beijing Olympics. For comparison, it took Phelps four years to cut the same.

The World Championships were tarnished as a farce, so much so that the USA Swimming National Team Director Mark Schubert dubbed the event as a “plastic meet.”

The outcry forced the world-body for swimming, FINA, wake up and ban these plastic full-body suits.

It has been more than a decade since the Plastic Meet. But the debate over where the line lies between appropriate use of technology and misuse of it still rages on. The latest example is Nike Vaporfly shoes. These shoes have sent shock waves through the marathon circles, with competitors wearing these shoes dropping times, like never before. The shoes have a thick midsole and carbon-fiber plate and provide an extra spring to the runner.

The shoes debuted in the market in 2017, and have caused an upheaval of sorts. The five fastest official marathons ever have come in these shoes, all within the last two years. Two of the five fastest women’s marathons were also in Vaporfly. The Kenyan runner Kipchoge became the first person to run 26.2 miles in under two hour in 2019. The way the records have tumbled have caused an outcry, which forced the world body to review the shoes. As of now, the World Athletics has allowed the shoes to be used at the Tokyo Olympics and World Championships. But the ruling also carried a dissenting note. According to the body, there is “sufficient evidence to raise concerns that the integrity of the sport might be threatened by the recent developments in shoe technology.” The agency also issued a few restrictions on shoe construction and make.

The debate over the use of these super-light shoes is reminiscent of the debate over the use of hi-tech suits in swimming. While many hail these new products as innovation, others dub them as unethical and unfair.

The trouble with these innovations is that they make the games elitist and undemocratic; only the rich will be able to afford and win. Imagine an athlete that has spent 8-10 hours every day practicing hard for years. Only to be beaten by an individual who is not better or skilled, but is wearing a costly suit or a shoe. This is not only unfair to the sportsperson but also detrimental to the sports, as then athletes start taking their performance for granted.

What we need to adjudge in the Nike Vaporfly controversy is whether the shoe affords any advantage to the runner in terms of enhanced performance? According to Nike, it does almost 4.2%, which clear unevens the level-playing field. This compels the runners to go in for these shoes or risk losing races to other contestants wearing such footwear.

The sad part is not only the records such “innovations” engineers but that they stay on for generations. Take Paul Bidermann’s 200 Freestyle record; it still stands there mocking at all the swimmers who wish to attain greatness through merit and hard work.

And if you think that, one is being unfair to Bidermann. Well, post the ban on full-body suits, Bidermann was never able to achieve the heights again. In 2011, he finished 3rd, behind Phelps who was second. In the London Olympics in 2012, he finished 5th in the same event, and then in Rio 2016; he finished 6th. Obviously, without his suit, Bidermann was not the Super-hero. Meanwhile, the real super-hero Phelps won 4 Golds & 2 Silver in London 2012, and 5 Golds & 1 Silver in Rio 2016.

That should settle the debate. For good.