This is not a question that comes up much with our sport. In fact, we’re so used to continuous improvement that it almost seems disloyal to even ask it.
Are we starting to see a plateau in swimming performances?
Track and field has been plagued with stagnating performances for a long time. Despite the publicity surrounding the amazing Usain Bolt, there just hasn’t been an across-the-board progression in track and field events for a long time. In fact, most track and field records are decades old. Ross Tucker on his excellent The Science of Sport blog (see here) wrote a great analysis of track and field world record progressions and the general stagnation involved in athletics.
World Record Analysis
When considering the main 16 track and field events, and not including Rio performances, the average women’s world record is 21.86 years old. For the men, it’s 15.21 years old. That’s unimaginable for swimming.
On the surface, swimming world record longevity indicates no cause for alarm. Our records underwent a complete overhaul in 2008 and 2009 with the introduction and then banning of tech suits. In 2008, the year in which tech suits were introduced, 108 world records were broken. In 2009, the last year in which the suits were legal, there were another 147 world records broken. That’s 255 WRs in a little less than 24 months. And the echoes of that failed experiment are still with us.
As an example, the oldest records on the books are Michael Phelp’s 400 IM and the US Men’s 4×100 Free Relay, both from the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In fact, they’re the only 2008 WRs left. Every World Record set before 2008 was wiped out.
Here’s how those 20 records breakdown by year.
Right away we can see a significant difference between the men and the women. The women have set post-2009 world records in 14 of the 20 official long course events. Meanwhile, the men have only broken the 2008/9 tech suit records in 6 of the 20 events. And for the men, two of those world records took place in the sprint breaststroke, where a new and more aggressive stroke (championed by Britain’s Adam Peaty) combined with a new FINA ruling resulting in a slightly faster underwater phase has allowed significant new records.
To understand why there is such a difference in how the genders responded to the post-tech suit world, we need a brief explanation of the 3 main ways in which tech suits made swimmers faster.
- The suits were extremely tight, providing a slimmer hydrodynamic profile, plus the compression aspect assisted fatigued muscles in maintaining efficiency.
- Air could be trapped in the suit, providing buoyancy and a higher body position, which lessened the water resistive forces.
- The suit used water repelling material that make it more slippery than skin, as well as allowing full coverage so that only the head, hands and feet were uncovered.
These features changed a fundamental trade-off in swimming: propulsion versus water resistance. A higher body position and lower water resistance made it possible for swimmers with more muscle mass to squeeze into the tech suit and have virtually no penalty associated with their added size. As men are more able to put on muscle mass than women, it was the men who ended up with the bigger advantage, as well as some incredible world records. And when the tech suits were banned at the beginning of 2010, it was the men who were put at a bigger disadvantage in terms of reaching those world records again.
To give you an idea of what I mean, here are pictures of Frances Alain Bernard (below left), winner of the 100 Free at Beijing in 2008, and Kyle Chalmers (below right), winner of the 100 Free in Rio in 2016.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the World Records set since 2009.
Rather than give times, I’ve shown the % drop in the world record since 2009. Notice that the women show improvements in sprints through distance, all 4 strokes, and the IM. In other words, the women are seeing across the board improvements.
The men however, have only improved in 6 races. Three of those involve breaststroke, made possible by the new technique plus the advantageous FINA rule change. The other 4 men’s world records were all improved by a very small amount.
We’ve seen that if we base the presence of stagnation on world record analysis, then women’s swimming clearly isn’t stagnating, and the men are improving, but at a much slower pace.
A New Metric
The problem with the above method of analysis is that World Records don’t give you the full picture. As in the case of T&F, only looking at the existing WRs set by doped East Germans and doped Chinese doesn’t provide you with any insight into the world-leading performances at any given time. You only know the performance-enhanced outliers. We need some other metric to determine if the sport is advancing, or just treading water. Let’s look at this a different way.
Luckily I developed a prototype of such a system about a month ago when I analyzed the 2016 US Swimming Olympic Trials (see here). In this system, I converted all individual races to its average time for 100 m. So for a 50, I double the time. For a 200, I divide the time in half. Etc. This more or less puts all 13 Olympic revents for each gender on an equal footing. Then I determine the average of those times. I also ignored relays, as a fast relay is more a matter of luck as to how many top swimmers are in a certain country or club.
In its initial use, I only used the winning time for each event at the US Olympic Trials, but I quickly determined that outliers, such as Katie Ledecky were massively influencing the result. I ended up deciding that the top 3 times in each event would be averaged together instead of just the top time. I call this the 100Avg3 measure. (Average the top 3 times, then convert to its 100 time)
I applied this 100Avg3 method to past Olympics and World Championships , just to see what the progression over the decades looks like. I should point out that I only use Olympic events when calculating the 100Avg3 for World Championships.
First off, you can certainly see the more or less continuous and significant improvement in women’s swimming right back to the when I stopped analyzing data in the 60s. I also added notes to indicate the most significant reason for drops during the years. The drop around 2000 is largely unexplained, although the availability and lack of testing protocols in the 90s for PEDs such as EPO may be a big reason (remember Lance Armstrong?). Another reason may be the adoption and improvements in the underwater phase for Free and Fly.
We can also see that the 2009 tech suit impact still hasn’t been fully overcome, but the improvement rate makes it look like it may just take a few more years.
While the overall curve looks similar, the men’s chart tells a radically different story. Certainly goggles contributed to the early performance improvements, but neither the East German men nor the Chinese men came close to dominating the swimming scene during their doping years. The most reasonable explanation I’ve heard is that steroids have a more immediate and significant impact on women than men.
As with the women, the drop during the late 1990s is largely unexplained. As mentioned above, EPO and other untestable PEDs may be a big reason, and improved underwater for Free and Fly may be another.
We can also see the huge impact of tech suits. It’s clear that the performances seen in 2009 really haven’t been approached.
Now, let’s zero in on the more recent past to see if we see signs of stagnation.
By zooming in on the last 20 years, we can see even more clearly the continuous improvement on the women’s side. Only the tech suits of 2009 interrupt this trend, and we can see that with the amazing 2016 Rio performances, the women have almost caught up to that. At the very least, there’s no reason to assume any levelling off on the performances.
I also added in the US Women’s Olympic Trials 100Avg3 values. Interestingly, the US women track the global 100Avg3 number closely, just about 0.7 seconds above. I realize there’s a difference between Olympic Trials and Olympics, but the US is the only country in the world where only the rare standouts can afford to not taper for the Trials.
The situation is again a little more interesting for the men. We’re definitely not seeing much of a move towards 2009 performances. In fact, the Olympic performances of 2012 and 2016 are almost identical to the 2008 Olympics, despite the significant improvements made since in Breaststroke. And the 2011, 2013 and 2015 performances are also every similar to each other, and slightly above the Olympic level. (Olympics have been slightly faster than World Championships for most years).
Although we’re only talking about a span of 8 years, it definitely seems like the men are in a plateau phase. Another few years of this, and we could probably call it a stagnation.
The US Men’s Olympic Trials track the global results closely as well, although about 0.6 – 0.7 seconds higher.
A study of World Records indicate that women’s swimming performance continues to improve, with 14 of the 20 long course records set by the tech suits of 2009 broken since then. And 7 of those 14 records were broken by more than 1%.
On the men’s side, only 6 of the 20 tech suit records have since been broken. Two of those records belong to Adam Peaty and his new and incredibly effective breaststroke. The other 4 records represented improvements of 0.4% or less.
Based solely on world record progression, swimming is in fine shape.
The new 100Avg3 method of calculating a single value to represent the speed of a swim meet allows us to do some interesting comparisons. We can see that the women have almost overcome the tech suit-induced performance peak of 2009, and are continuing to improve with each year.
The men, on the other hand, appear to have reached a bit of a plateau, returning to 2008 tech suit levels, but still nowhere near the 2009 levels. Performance improvements since 2008 have been minimal at best.
It’s far too early to say whether true stagnation is realistically anywhere on the horizon. New almost-impossible to detect doping techniques, such as micro-dosing T and EPO, may already be in use by elite swimmers, but we can certainly expect its use in the future. And women’s side also has the far more delicate situation of hyperandrogenism that has yet to raise its head in swimming.
It will certainly be interesting to see how the next few years turn out.