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Montreal controversy: do we need video referees?

It wouldn’t be much of a global swimming championship if there hadn’t been any controversy. In three of the past four meets of this calibre, the Olympics in Athens and the world championships of Fukuoka in 2001 and this year in Montreal, the swimming competition has been blighted by some indiscretion either called unnecessarily or missed by the officials. But does this trail of controversy lead inevitably to a video referee?

Otylia Jedrzejczak's now infamous one hand touch at the end of the 200m butterfly final

In 2001 there was dispute that surrounded the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay final when, after the Australian squad had already been disqualified for an indiscretion at the finish, the USA team was also eliminated on the basis of a false start. Video evidence indicated that they did not in fact break but the footage was inadmissible at their protest and the gold medal was subsequently awarded to Britain. FINA later admitted their mistake and awarded the USA foursome commemorative gold medals.

The 2003 championships in Barcelona memorably passed off without significant incident, but fast forward to Athens in 2004 and there were at least two major talking points. Firstly breaststroke double winner Kosuke Kitajiima was clearly seen on underwater video footage carrying out an illegal butterfly kick at the start and turn in the final of the 100m event. Again with video evidence not available for any appeal the result stood. Following the furore surrounding this incident FINA have now proposed a rule change to allow dolphin kicks at the start and turn.

Then there was the debacle surrounding Aaron Peirsol’s temporary disqualification from the 200m backstroke final. The American was originally thrown out for an illegal kick at the turn but was subsequently reinstated following a procedural anomaly in the reporting process. In this instance video replays were inconclusive at best.

Nonetheless, following these high profile incidents, a motion was put in place at this year’s FINA Congress to allow the use of underwater footage in appeals, but the motion was defeated; more on some of the reasons why later.

This brings us to Montreal and the now infamous one handed touch that led to Otilya Jedjezcak retaining her world record and taking the gold medal in the 200m butterfly. In common with the earlier instances, the underwater and over the top footage was not available to the Australian team as part of their protest, despite clearly showing the infringement. The illegal finish was also missed by the finish judge and the record and result stand.

Will we see this at future World Championships?

But would a video referee help? No doubt the infringements discussed here may have been seen and results may have been different but there are a number of issues surrounding the implementation of such a scheme that have yet to be adequately resolved.

Firstly what would the extent of such coverage be? To be entirely fair there would have to be equal coverage of every lane, and probably multiple camera angles. The added expense to championship budgets would be significant.

Then who gets to see the footage and would it be looked at only if there were a protest or as a matter of course? There can already be some interminable delays, particularly in relays, with swimmers standing nervously on poolside before the results are finalised, but that would happen even more often if a video referee were to watch back the footage of every race before declaring the result official. Equally in the other instance, teams may feel they should put in spurious protests on the off chance that their swimmer has been harshly done by. It could possibly be end up as one big mess unless FINA, who don’t have the best track record for robust procedures, can come up with a workable framework for implementation.

The whole debate at present raises more questions than it answers. However once the practical issues are overcome, it seems inevitable that we will eventually see video evidence becoming part and parcel of major championship swimming.