A Time Of Change For World Records
May 1953 and again in 1957 will forever represent watershed moments in the sport of swimming. Sixty years ago today, butterfly celebrated its first official world record beyond the split of breaststroke with butterfly action into two distinct strokes. This month 56 years ago also saw the first wave of world records established under new rules that only recognised global efforts if swam in pools 50 metres (or 55 yards) long.
The Fifties were truly significant to the shape of the sport as we know it today: the dawn of the fourth stroke also gave rise to the fifth element of the four strokes: medley. The 1950s was a time when timing experts were linking their metronomic counters to electronic platforms for the first time in readiness for a new era by the end of the decade that followed. It was a time of Australian surge to superpower status in the pool at a time when the relative dominance of the United States was being tested by Hungarian and Dutch women.
If the birth of butterfly was revolutionary and opened up a whole new range of possibilities in the pool, then the shift to what would become known as “long-course” world records rules coincided with the spread of daily training and a fresh assault on the record books. Over distances that we recognise today, 205 world records fell in the 1950s. Alongside butterfly, the 400m medley also became an official world-record distance in 1953, and after Frank O’Neill (AUS) became the first holder of FINA standard time, at 5:48.5 on January 17, 1953, the mark tumbled a further five times that year. The advent of the 4x100m medley relay in 1953saw the world record set by a Swedish club team, SK Poseidon, and broken a further five times that year – and 16 times in total before the decade was out. In hose 10 years, FINA’s membership grew from 22 to 82 nations.
When FINA changed the world-record rule to 50m or 55y pools only, it accepted some standard times as the recognised fastest long-course effort ever (for example, times set at the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 and efforts that were clearly the second-fastest times ever after records established in what we now know as short-course pools – 25m – and what were then known as mid-course pools – 33.3y or m)
In events in which it was hard to establish the facts and where existing world records were significantly faster than long-course efforts, a FINA Standard Time was fixed and a new world record declared as the first swimmer got past the federation’s post on the clock.
While most standards had fallen by the close of 1958, it took until January 9, 1960 for the entire record book to be refreshed: that was the day Australian Ilsa Konrads, little sister of John and coached by Don Talbot, took down the 400 (440y) freestyle mark in 4:45.4. It had stood to fellow Australian Loraine Crapp at 4:47.2 since October 20, 1956. The shiny suit records of 2008-9 have proved far more resilient that short and medium-course times did back in the 1950s.
All of that was recorded on a stopwatch but plans were afoot to change all of that. At the pre-Games FINA Congress in 1956, Max Ritter, a future President, introduced a “finish-judging machine”. It was Omega’s first semi-automatic timer for swimming, the Swim Eight-O-Matic Timer, which functioned in unison with the first “touch pads”. A new age of swimming was born as members approved unanimously the use of the device in all future events held under FINA’s jurisdiction. The hands of time moved slowly, however, and Tokyo 1964 would roll round before machine would officially override the human eye.
There were other things to worry about along the way: in 1956, the IOC proposed that all events attracting fewer than 12 nations be dropped from the Games at Melbourne. Intervention from FINA meant that the rule was not imposed until after the 1956 Games, those ensuring that today we can recall some great moments that may never have happened: the 1,500m freestyle victory for home hero Murray Rose, Dawn Fraser’s first two gold medals, over 100m and 4x100m, and Ursula Happe’s victory for Germany over 200m breaststroke. Some things had to wait for their time: Spain proposed that 50m freestyle be recognised as a world-record event. The vote was lost and the move was made only in 1986.
The 1950s was a time of great strides in coaching. Bob Kiputh (USA head coach to the 1948 squad) saw his “wind sprints” training technique adapted and developed by Australia coaches. Pioneer Forbes Carlile, adapted the idea into “interval training”, a methodology still in use today. Fellow Australian Harry Gallagher was working with exercise physiologists as early as 1953 under the motto “teach them before you train them”. His pupils included Dawn Fraser and Jon Henricks, 1956 sprint champions. Among pioneering young coaches were Peter Daland (USA) and Don Talbot (both AUS), while Jan Stender’s Dutch Divas – denied only by the Dutch boycott of the 1956 Olympic Games – stormed the record books. In France, Alban Minville guided Alex Jany to world records and Jean Boiteux to an upset victory over 400m freestyle at the 1952 Olympics.
The number of nations challenging for big prizes in the pool was growing.
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