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In Game of Beat the Clock, Swimmers Set the Pace

As records in track run in place, new marks are frequently posted in the pool. Factors include history and technology. Doping hangs over it all.

August 20, 2004|Alan Abrahamson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — As the swimming competition winds down and track and field begins in earnest today at Olympic Stadium, the two glamour events of the Summer Games make for a study in contrasts.

Swimmers keep going faster and faster, setting world records in virtually every meet, including five so far at these Games. But in track and field, most of the women's world records were set in the 1980s, and half the men's marks before 1997.

Doping is a cloud that has enveloped the entire question of records in Olympic sports, and the extent to which it has allowed athletes to make history in the last three decades may never fully be known.

But there is no disputing that as stricter testing regimens have been imposed and public pressure has increased, track records remain mostly frozen in time, while the swimmers continue to beat the clock. Experts aren't entirely sure why, but cite several factors apart from banned substances, such as technology, training and even the differing nature of the competitions.

They suggest that while humans have been running, jumping and throwing for thousands of years, and may now be pushing the boundaries of what is possible, competitive swimming is a comparatively recent endeavor -- one not maxed out physiologically.

Scott Davis, co-author of a USA Track & Field statistical manual, pointed out that American Jimmy Hines ran the 100 meters in a world-record 9.95 seconds in 1968 -- a mark eventually lowered by Tim Montgomery to 9.78 in 2002.

"We're 17-hundredths of a second faster [nearing] 40 years later," he said. "That's not a whole lot. You get close to the point of human peak performance in these events."

In the water, by contrast, the men's 100-meter freestyle mark has dropped by more than four seconds since 1968, and by more than three since 1972, when Mark Spitz swam a then-world record 51.22 seconds at the Munich Olympics. The mark is now 47.84, set at the Sydney Games in 2000 by Pieter van den Hoogenband of Holland.

On Wednesday, the U.S. women's 800-meter relay team erased swimming's oldest world record, set in 1987 by an East German team. The U.S. team finished in 7 minutes 53.42 seconds, wiping out the old mark by more than two seconds.

Perhaps nothing, however, underscores the vulnerability of swimming records more than Michael Phelps' dominance in the 400-meter individual medley. On Saturday, Phelps swam in 4:08.26 to set a world record in the event -- the fifth time in two years he had done so.

Experts cite, among other factors, breakthroughs in suits, gear and even the pool itself; a more sophisticated biomechanical understanding of the way humans move through water; better training; and the opening up of the sport to athletes from nations that traditionally have not been swimming powers.

Some in swimming credit old-fashioned grit and dedication. "The way we get people to go faster the next year is we bring them in and make them work harder," said Eddie Reese, the 2004 U.S. men's Olympic coach, who since 1979 has been the swim coach at the University of Texas.

Others point to technology.

"The suits help a lot. I mean, a lot," said Oussama Mellouli, 20, a Tunisian who finished fifth here in the 400 individual medley. Mellouli, a junior at USC, was one of two Africans to win a medal at last year's swimming world championships in Barcelona, Spain -- evidence of swimming's increasingly worldwide reach.

"In the end, it's understanding more about a medium that human beings are not supposed to go through," said Canadian swimmer Brian Johns, 22, world-record holder in the 400-meter individual medley short course.

But technological advances have contributed to track too. Australia's Cathy Freeman won the 400 meters at the Sydney Olympics in a special suit; her gold-medal run, 49.11 seconds, was nonetheless a whopping 1.51 seconds slower than the world record set in 1985, by an East German, Marita Koch.

In any case, athletes, coaches and others say that doping is so widespread in all sports that it must be included in any thoughtful consideration of the matter.

"There's a sadness that every time people see a great performance, they assume doping," said Mark Schubert, coach of the U.S. women's swim team here and since 1993 the men's and women's swim coach at USC. "It's just not true."

Track and field is engulfed with doping issues. The sport's worldwide governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, held a 45-minute news conference here Sunday and every question related to doping.

"It's a bit depressing, to say the least," IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said. "We're a news sport now. Not a sport sport."

A look at recent Olympic history provides some clues about the role that doping has played in track and field records.

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