Scratching Yourself in Public

By David

Nothing excites administrators and coaches more than the thought of a swimmer scratching from an event. I’ve heard swimmers accused of all sorts of character flaws at the very mention of scratching from a race. The most popular slurs involve patriotism and cowardice.

The patriotism argument goes something like this. Swimming this event may not be in your best interests. It may lay waste to your chance of setting a record in your best event due to start in fifteen minutes. We know you are the fastest qualifier for tonight’s final and need to get back to the hotel to eat and rest. It is unfortunate that you feel ill and have been running to the toilet all night. That teres major muscle tear and 103 degree fever is certainly bad luck. BUT – your team needs you. There are points to be won. Don’t you understand that the pariahs at Mongoose Aquatics are three points ahead of us? You could change all that. Your team’s future is hanging by a thread. This moment is what it means to be a Shining Light Aquatics American (insert here New Zealander, Australian or any one of the world’s other 195 countries).

The cowardice argument goes something like this. Swimming is more than a sport. It’s about character. Do you have what it takes to be successful in life? Are you a man – always said irrespective of gender? Are you tough? Can you take it – whatever it is? All these questions will be answered positively or negatively by the decision you make right now. Scratch and you will reveal character flaws that will shadow and haunt you through life. Good people do not scratch from a swimming race. Swim and you lift yourself above the common herd. You will have shown character. You will be a leader. Yours will be “the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son” – also said irrespective of gender.

It’s all rubbish of course. We’re talking about a swimming race, a sport, a game. This is not Passchendaele or the Fall of Saigon. But many administrators miss that point. The Chairman of a Club Jane swam for wrote to the team’s Board after a Caribbean Championships asking for Jane to be sanctioned. According to the Chairman, Jane’s felony was scratching from the 50 meters butterfly final. She had, he said, let the team down, lost the team points and set a bad example to younger swimmers. The truth is, I entered Jane in the heat of the butterfly race on the first day of the Championships as a warm-up swim, never expecting she would make the final. However she performed better than I anticipated and ended up comfortably in the top eight. The butterfly final however was dangerously close to the final of Jane’s favorite event, the 200 meters breaststroke. I decided to play it safe and scratched her from the fly. Jane won the breaststroke in a time that is still the Caribbean Championship record for that event. A wise decision had been made. Fortunately the Club’s Board agreed and dismissed the Chairman’s call for censure.

The decision to scratch needs to be based on what is in the best interests of the individual involved. I ask one simple question. If I had access to the information available at the time of the scratching would I have entered the swimmer in the first place? If I’d known the swimmer was not feeling well, or was likely to perform better in another event, or had hurt herself skiing, or was going to be late for her sister’s birthday would I have pushed ahead with the entry in the first place. Does the new information mean the swimmer would not have been even entered? If the answer to that question is even a mild probably, then scratching is the proper option; everyone lives to fight another day. Insist on swimming because of some spurious moral good and we all suffer. Worse than that, very probably, another swimmer is about to be added to the list of teenagers who dropped out of swimming early in their careers. This is sport not some total transformation boot camp. Even Arthur Lydiard, and he was a really tough bugger, said. “If in doubt, leave it out.”

This “scratching” philosophy means my swimmers do scratch from more races than other teams. At Mare Nostrum last year our team of five swimmers scratched from at least one event on each of the seven days of competition. Some might see that as a problem; I do not. However, do not expect a relaxed attitude to scratching to act as any protection from partisan parents. Some time ago I was accused of forcing a swimmer to compete in a swimming race. It does not take a particularly perspicacious mind to determine that the content of this article makes that suggestion really, really unlikely. However I had to explain all this at a stressful and unnecessary hearing. The complaint was found to have no substance. So there you have it; in the short space of about four years, two complaints – one for not forcing a swimmer to compete and the other for forcing a swimmer into the pool. And both wrong. It’s right what they say, you know, “there’s now’t so queer as folk.”