Swimmers in a hurry to break records
Comparison with athletics shows huge difference in progress
By Arno Seiro
At the top level, swimming is a strange old business. Records in the sport seem to be made of very flimsy stuff, as they are broken constantly, and there is no sign of any slowing of the rate of progress downwards. The speed with which fastest times are consigned to history is noticeably greater than that on the athletics track, for instance.
"Johnny Weissmüller was the first person in the world to swim 100 metres in under a minute, back in the 1920s. Now, for instance, Hanna-Maria Seppälä's Finnish record clips more than five seconds off that time. And hey, Weissmüller was Tarzan, after all", quips Olympic swimming coach Mika Kekäläinen.
He hardly needs to add that Weissmüller - who went on to become a Hollywood heart-throb after winning five Olympic golds and setting 67 world records - was also a man, while Seppälä, the 2003 World Champion for the 100 metres freestyle, is a woman.
In the world of track and field, the 400 metres is the distance most closely comparable with the 100 metres freestyle in the pool.
In the 1920s, the men's world record for the single lap of the track was 47.4 seconds, and was held by James Meredith of the United States.
The current women's world record for the distance still has not matched Meredith's time.
Marita Koch's apparently unassailable 47.60 dates from October 1985. No woman has gone under 48.70 in the past decade.
Kekäläinen admits that the reasons for the apparent disdain swimmers have for records are partly cloaked in mystery.
"There have been no great advances in training for quite some time. From as early as the 1960s onwards, swimmers have trained twice a day, even though there have certainly been improvements in the quality of their workouts."
"There haven't even been any great developments in the equipment used, either. If you put a swimmer in a modern bodyskin [one of the tight full-body costumes used by competitive swimmers] and then in the old-fashioned trunks, there is little material difference in the times posted", says Kekäläinen.
The design standards of pools used in major competitions have been unchanged for decades. The waves created in the pool have not slowed up the swimmers for years.
But even if conditions have not been altered for the better, records continue to be smashed in the sport as if there were no tomorrow.
Jim Montgomery of the United States was the first man to go under the magic 50 seconds barrier for the 100 metres freestyle, clocking 49.99 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Since then the time has had 2.15 seconds shaved off it. Over the same 30-year period, the runners have improved the 400 metres world record by just 0.68 seconds.
Some explanations have in fact been unearthed when swimming has been studied. Swimmers have learnt to adapt to the watery elements - their ""feel" for the water has improved.
"Some researchers have arrived at the conclusion that the power output or torque of the very best swimmers - the thing that drives them forward in the water - is no better than other swimmers who are almost in the same class. But their drag coefficients - what would slow them up - are remarkably small", explains Kekäläinen.
The coach compares a swimmer with a motor-boat.
"It is as if the raw horse power developed by the engines has not increased very markedly, but the hull designs are better, so they slide and cut through the water more smoothly. Modern swimmers are also better able to apply the hand and leg forces hydrodynamically, or in other words the propeller design has improved."
Estonian swimming researcher Rein Haljand brings into the discussion the swimmers' clearly improved techniques for starts and turns.
"Nowadays, swimmers will take ten to a dozen or so dolphin kicks while submerged after the start, which has sharpened up the initial acceleration away from the blocks. In addition, their speed through turns at the ends of the pool has improved considerably. Swimmers have already developed these components of a race practically to the maximum", says Haljand of the progress over the last couple of decades.
He is a professor of kinesiology at the Faculty of Physical Education at Tallinn University, and has also worked extensively with the Finnish Swimming Federation.
Haljand believes that in future the records will be improved still further in the 100 and 200 metres freestyle by concentrating attention on the second quarter of the distance.
"Swimmers will have to learn to go faster - and thus closer to the risk threshold - after the first ten seconds or so. For instance in the 100 metres the second 25-metre section is clearly ‘underdeveloped' among the top performers. When the properties for improving this are discovered and fine-tuned, then the records will tumble again, and by a serious margin", argues Haljand.
We are talking here about moving down to completely new figures in seconds. The current freestyle world record stands at 47.84, but Haljand does not believe 46 seconds will be enough to grab the title of fastest man over 100 metres.
"In the future men will swim the distance in 45 seconds."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.3.2007
More on this subject:
Ian Thorpe and his jet-propelled "flippers"
Hanna-Maria Seppälä personal site
Freestyle swimming (Wikipedia)
ARNO SEIRO / Helsingin Sanomat