Indian Swimmers continue to suffer. Who’s to blame?

Yet again, in another “Unlock” announced by the government, swimming pools have been left out. This was the third instance of the “Unlock” when various aspects of the economy were restarted. Gyms, malls, sports complexes, etc. have been allowed to open. Still, swimming pools continue to be disallowed much like cinema halls, entertainment parks, theatres, bars, and so on. Not surprisingly, Indian competitive swimmers who have been waiting many months for the pools to reopen are distraught. They have been let down by the government and the various swimming bodies that promised pools would be reopened.

For the past few weeks, elite swimmers like Virdhawal Khade, Srihari Nataraj and renowned coach Nihar Ameen have been beseeching the sports minister Kiren Rijjiju and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to pay attention to their plight. Numerous tweets have been posted tagging the Swimming Federation of India (SFI), MHA, the sports minister, imploring them to open up the pools for competitive training. India’s highest-ranked swimmer Virdhawal Khade has even gone to the extent of talking about retirement from the sports if there’s no headway. Their exhortations haven’t been answered, except with stoic silence. It’s almost like these swimmers have been banging their heads against the wall, or a better analogy would be they have been dumped in the Arabian Sea without a life jacket.

The predicament and the frustration of the Indian swimmers is quite understandable. It has been over four months since the pools have been closed, that is practically a third-of-the-year. For athletes, who typically spend anything from 4-6 hours in the water, perfecting their strokes, tumbles, catch, and so on, this extended break can be devastating both physically and psychologically.  This is all the more so because they were eagerly preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (which will now be held in 2021). All the preparations, milestones, timelines have gone for a toss.

Qualifying for Olympics is a tough call, especially so in aquatics. The selection process is as follows; participating countries are allowed up to two qualified swimmers per individual event and one relay team. Each country is allowed a maximum of fifty-six swimmers (twenty-eight male and twenty-eight female). Though each country is free to select the swimmers, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) establishes a standard that must be met for a swimmer to be eligible to compete at the Olympic Games. The top swimming body, FINA publishes two sets of time-standards for each of the events: the “Olympic Qualifying Time” known as the “A-Time” and the “Olympic Selection Time” known as “B-Time.” Each country may enter up to two swimmers per event, provided both swimmers meet the qualifying time or A-Time. A country may enter one swimmer per event who meets the qualifying standard or B-Time. Any swimmer who meets the qualifying time will be entered in the event for the Games; a swimmer meeting the B-Time standard will be eligible for entry, and their entry will be allotted/filled in by ranking. A country that does not receive an allocation spot, but has at least one swimmer who meets a qualifying standard may enter the swimmer with the highest ranking. If a country has no swimmers meeting either qualifying standard, it may enter one male and one female in total.

Thus, B-Time qualification will only ensure an invitation to the Olympics if the total available quota slots (878) are not filled. So far, six Indian swimmers have attained the B-Time, Virdhawal with a timing of 22.44s in 50m freestyle. Sajan Prakash (1:58.45 in 200m butterfly), Srihari (54.69s in 100m backstroke), Kushagra Rawat (8:07.99 in 800m freestyle), Aryan Makhija (8:07.80 in 800m freestyle) and Advait Page (8:00.76 in 800m freestyle). Yet, these qualifications count for nothing as only an A-Time can get you the position in the Olympic swimming team. For Virdhawal the target is 22.01; 1:56:48 for Sajan and 53.85 for Srihari. Rawat, Page and Makhija have to clock 7:54:31.

The time difference between 22.01 and 22.44 might not seem much to a common man, but in swimming parlance, it is equivalent to an aeon, a difference between a life-time spent in celebration or in ignominy.

While Indian swimmers struggle to attain these qualifying times, the case is pretty different for a power-house like the US. To give an idea, till August 14, 2019, over 1000 swimmers had attained the qualifying times for different events in the US. To illustrate the high-level of competition, let’s take the 50 Freestyle male event, six swimmers had achieved the A-Time, the best being Caeleb Dressel with 21.04. Some 23 swimmers have attained the B-Time. Indeed, there were 23 swimmers between the timeline of 22.01 to 22.67. Now, the US team can send only two swimmers for this event. Thus, at the US trials, all these swimmers will have to battle out, and only the top two will get to wear the stars and stripes. All these A-Times and B-Times count for little when you are in the US.

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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.