SI Vault
Edited by Craig Neff
November 28, 1988
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November 28, 1988


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Sad to say, the revolutionary underwater backstroke technique popularized by Harvard senior David Berkoff (Back to the Future, Aug. 22) has been declared illegal by FINA, the international swimming federation. Berkoff, who set the world record in the 100-meter back three times this year using the technique and won the Olympic silver medal with it, had taken advantage of FINA's vague backstroke rule, which says only that competitors "[shall] swim upon their backs throughout the race."

Berkoff would swim the first 35 meters or so of his race underwater, his hands locked overhead, propelling himself with an undulating dolphin kick. Then—to the gasps of the crowd—he would surface, usually several meters in front of his rivals. This submarine technique (which several others, including 100 gold medalist Daichi Suzuki of Japan, also used at the Olympics) made the backstroke far more exciting to watch.

But FINA's 17-member bureau has held that swim means "swim on the surface" and declared that henceforth backstrokers must come to the surface in the first 10 meters of a race. Although both U.S. Swimming, the American governing body, and the NCAA will hold off on implementing FINA's new interpretation—USS is asking FINA to allow swimmers to stay under for 25 meters—the submarine has essentially been sunk.

"There were three reasons behind the decision," says FINA secretary Ross Wales of the U.S. "One was that it just wasn't backstroke. Two, there was concern for safety—that some young swimmer might stay under too long and not come up. The third reason was based on the selling of the sport: Would fans still think it's interesting after the novelty wears off?"

Berkoff, whose world record of 54.51 seconds will still stand, calls the ruling "a personal slap in the face." He points out that he stays underwater only 16 seconds, compared with more than 55 seconds for synchronized swimmers. And the notion that the stroke isn't exciting is a joke. Says Berkoff, "They're just killing the sport if they're going to knock out people who are innovators."

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