Where Is The Rule?

By David

There are some taboo subjects in swimming. One of them is questioning the decision of a swimming official. Inevitably, you run the risk of one of those endless lectures about how officials are unpaid volunteers that the sport could not do without. However, questioning does not mean disloyalty. On the contrary, probing, questioning and seeking to make things better is the highest form of loyalty. You care enough to want to see things improve! Your motives are not a criticism of the past. Riding a stage coach from New York to Los Angeles was a fine means of transport. It’s just that first class on an American Airlines’ 747 is better.

And so, with some fear in my heart, I would like to discuss a decision made by the referee and starter at the Regional High School competition at St Andrews School in Boca Raton, Florida last week.

The swimmer involved was in lane five of the final of the women’s 500 yard freestyle. The referee called the competitors to the start and handed the swimmers over to the starter. The starter invited them to take their marks. The swimmer in lane five crouched in the starting position and realized that her back foot was insecure in some water at the back of the block. For safety she twisted her foot to clear the water. She was disqualified. Why? What rule had she broken? She was told it was because she had moved her foot. But what rule does that break? She was never told, and I can’t find it. I’m not saying the rule does not exist: I just want to see it.

Let’s look at what the starting rules say. First of all FINA:

SW 4.1 On the starter’s command “take your marks” they shall immediately take up a starting position with at least one foot at the front of the starting platforms. When all swimmers are stationary, the starter shall give the starting signal.

Then US Swimming:

101.1.2 (C) The Start: When the starter’s command “take your marks”, the swimmers shall immediately assume their starting position… When all swimmers are stationary, the starter shall give the starting signal.”

And finally Florida High School:

Once all swimmers are on the blocks, the referee immediately turns the heat over to the starter. When the swimmers are prepared, the starter says, “Take your mark.” When swimmers have assumed the correct starting position and are motionless, the starter activates the starting signal.

So what did lane five do wrong? She immediately assumed her starting position, realized her back foot was insecure, immediately corrected it and waited for the start signal. When she and the others were motionless the signal to begin the race was given and lane five started the race. Why has a flinch of the arms or a twist of a foot become illegal when it is not precluded in any of the rules?

What would the referee and starter at Boca Raton have had the swimmer do instead? Not move her foot, leave it insecure and run the risk of slipping and hurting herself? One of my swimmers slipped on a wet starting block during the New Zealand Olympic trials in 2004. The massive black bruise on her foot was visible by the end of the 100m race. If I’m reading this situation correctly, it reminds me of the zealous over-policing that went on when rolling on to the swimmer’s front was first allowed in backstroke turns. Hundreds were disqualified for turns that are readily accepted today. Edit from… the editor, and a pointless aside: dolphin kicks during breaststroke turns are allowed today, and my “best” 100 yard breaststroke time occurred in a race in which I was DQed for a dolphin kick on the start… six months before it was made legal. My legal best time is .15 seconds slower. Oh, the frustration!

At the pool this morning , I asked the seniors, “Why are you disqualified for a twitch of the arm or a twist of the foot when neither breaks the rules?”

“It’s because they consider it to be a false start,” said one. If that is the reason, it is a bad one. Lane five moving her foot was not a false start, or anything like it. She could have stood there until next Christmas without diving in the water. To be a false start, the process of starting needs to be involved. To false start you need to start. And that lane five did not.

It is off the subject a bit, but officials do seem to be cavalier about how they go about telling swimmers and coaches about a disqualification. In this case the swimmer in lane five was told, “You moved your foot. You’re disqualified.” That disqualification cost the swimmer her first trip to the State finals; she swam fast enough to qualify. If she hadn’t been disqualified, the swim would have been a big Personal Best. When officials are wiping out thousands of hours of work and hundreds of dollars of training fees and travel costs, they have an obligation to add, “and that is contrary to high school rule XY.” Then at least we could determine whether their decision was correct.

In this case we are totally open to suggestion. We have done as best we can to search the rules, but this doesn’t mean we’ve found every rule in the book. All we know is that swimmers have been disqualified for this “offense” before and we don’t exactly know why. We’d be very pleased for someone to complete the, “and that is contrary to high school rule xx,” for us.