Monday, 30 July 2012

Does Swimming Have A Doping Problem? Probably not.


Maybe like a lot of you, I've been watching the Olympics over the past few days. In particular the cycling road races and the early stages of the swimming competitions. The swimming has really caught my attention. For a sport that requires such physical fitness, why is it almost untarnished by doping scandals? The only scandals I'm aware of are the Chinese in the 90s and Ian Thorpe's alleged use of EPO, and that's nothing when compared to the scandals cycling or athletics have suffered. Is it because swimming is free from doping?

It's unlikely, I don't believe any sport is completely free from doping. If there is an opportunity to cheat, a small percentage of athletes will take that opportunity. In my opinion the percentage of athletes who do dope depends on the environment they're in, for example a cyclist in the mid 90s would be far more likely to dope than a cyclist nowadays. Better testing and the blood passport program is a factor but in my opinion the main catalyst for change in professional cycling has been the environment, the 'Omerta'* no longer exists to the extent it once did.

However I really don't believe swimming has these issues that have plagued other sports, mainly because doping seems to be far less beneficial in swimming than say cycling or athletics. To understand this better we need to look at the average age of world records in swimming and athletics and compare the two (for both we will use the close of the Beijing Olympics).

Firstly swimming: The average age of a men's world record is 1 year, 1 month, the average for women is only 8 months, out of 32 combined events only 4 have records older than 3 years.

Secondly athletics: The average age of a men's world record is 8 years, 11 months (Bolt breaking a 12 year old record played a large part in that), the average for women is far longer at 14 years, 9 months (22 times older than the women's swimming records!).

Swimming doesn't follow the same pattern at all and I've no doubt the swimmers of the 80s and pre EPO test era were doping to a similar extent as the track and field athletes. It just means that doping in swimming doesn't increase performance to anywhere near the extent it does in athletics, largely because swimming is such an inefficient activity. The best swimmers are only about 7% efficient, so a drug that improves strength and power would have a far smaller effect because most of the strength and power gained is lost to the inefficiency of the stroke. Swimming only started to see world records tumble with the introduction of the 'speed suits', better technology in pools and an all round better understanding of how to swim efficiently.

When you're swimming fast improving how efficiently you move through the water would be far more beneficial than doping. This can be clearly seen after the farcical 2009 swimming world championships where almost every world record was destroyed. Soon after, the suits were banned and the sport went almost 2 years without a world record.

I'm not saying that doping doesn't exist in swimming, it just seems that doping is far less prevalent than you would expect of a sport in which world records were broken at will. For a sport that is so dependent on efficiency, it may be more beneficial to improve your stroke than improve your red blood cell count.

However that's not to say some athletes don't do both.........


*Omerta - Term used in cycling to describe the wall of silence surrounding doping, you simply do not discuss doping to an outsider.

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