September 26, 2006

Rules of the Game

Scott at Timed Finals had an interesting post a few days ago about the various different sets of rules in effect at swimming competitions in the United States.

Scott examines the use of the butterfly kick in breaststroke events and points out that some young swimmers are bound by one set of rules at USA Swimming events and a different set of rules at National Federation of High Schools events. (The former organization runs the US national team and development programs, and the latter governs high school swimming competitions.)

This high school season, the National Federation Swim and Dive Rules Committee changed its rules to allow butterfly kicks, but to the dismay of many coaches and athletes, the rule is different from the USA Swimming rule. The butterfly kick - in which the leg bends and the legs move together in unison - allowed in high school swimming this year permits a swimmer to take a dolphin kick only after the arm stroke, not at any point in it.

What’s the problem then? The high school swimmers who swim for USA Swimming clubs are taught to take the dolphin kick at whatever point in the arm stroke they feel comfortable.

Scott goes on to express the opinion that the competition rules should be uniform and charges the various governing bodies "to come together to discuss these rules in order to keep everyone on a level and similar playing field."

I myself have a role in one of those governing bodies — not for swimming in the United States, but for flatwater canoe-kayak in Canada. I am currently the chairman of the committee that has responsibility for setting the racing rules for national team trials.

Members of the Canadian national canoe-kayak team have to race under at least three different sets of rules during a season:

  • Domestic racing rules established by CanoeKayak Canada and in force at regional and national championships, where athletes race for their clubs;
  • National team trials racing rules established by the High Performance Commitee of CKC and in force at national team selection trials, where athletes race for selection to international competition; and
  • International racing rules established by the International Canoe Federation and in force at international competitions, where athletes race for Canada.

The domestic competition rules are quite different from the international rules. That's partly because those rules are determined by majority vote of the member clubs of CKC, and there is no higher governing body "handing down" rules that must be followed. And partly it's because the scope and objectives of domestic competition are very different from the scope and objectives of international competition.

As I noted, I have some responsibility for setting the second set of rules. The primary purpose of the national team trials is to select athletes for international competition. To do that, we need to let the athletes perform on a fair and level playing field, and we need to collect objective data (rankings and times) that are used to make the selections. A secondary purpose of the trials is to prepare athletes for international competition. In this respect we want to simulate ICF-sanctioned regattas as closely as possible.

In general, then, we stick closely to the ICF rules (PDF) because it clearly supports the secondary objective. But sometimes strict adherence to ICF rules undermines the primary objective.

For this reason there are a very few ICF rules that we do not enforce at our trials; for example, rule 14.1:

At least three kayaks or canoes must be entered before the race can be held. …

We sometimes hold races with two crews, or even only one crew, for example in cases where a crew has yet to meet some minimum performance standard. We also sometimes hold events (usually women's canoe races) that are not yet recognized by the ICF.

This is a relatively minor variance, to which nobody objects. Other cases are not so clear-cut. Here's an example of a very unpopular ICF rule (16.3) that we do enforce at our Trials:

If the competitor does not start, and has no valid reason approved by the Competition Committee, he shall be disqualified for the whole regatta. A competitor, who arrives too late at the start, shall be considered to have voluntarily withdrawn and shall be disqualified under this rule.

ICF rule 16.3 was most famously invoked at the 1988 Olympic Games. French paddlers (and heavy favourites) Philippe Boccara and Pascal Boucherit missed the semi-final for their K-2 1000m semi-final, which was held a short time after Boccara had qualified for the K-1 1000m final. Under rule 16.3 Boccara was disqualified not only from progressing further in K-2, but also from racing the final in K-1 (more here under "Distraits," if you read French).

The rationale behind rule 16.3 is somewhat convoluted. Basically the rule tries to prevent athletes and teams from corrupting the seeded draw by entering events they have no intention of racing. In our case, most of the athletes who run afoul of this rule are young paddlers at their first trials who miss the start of their first heat and then are not allowed to race the entire weekend in any event — singles, doubles, or fours at any distance. By enforcing the rule, we are eliminating the opportunity to evaluate those athletes (and for them to evaluate themselves) against their peers. In other words, we're undermining the primary purpose of the competition. If the enforcement of the rule is not making a significant improvement in the fairness of the competition, then its only purpose is to "teach athletes a lesson" about ICF rules, and that has to be balanced off against the detrimental effects.

Other variances can arise if we start to think that an ICF rule is itself unfair or open to manipulation. Lately I've been starting to wonder about ICF rule 9.3, which concerns boat weighing and measurement following each race:

… Three or more boats according to the decision of the Competition Committee and on a random system shall be re-controlled [weighed, measured, and inspected] immediately after the race.

Usually at the trials we call four boats to boat control; if we call them "on a random system," you have a 5/9 chance of not being checked after your race, even if you win. Part of the primary purpose of the trials is to ensure a fair and objective evaluation of our athletes, and I am not sure that rule 9.3 safeguards that fairness well enough. I would feel more comfortable with a system where the top finishers are always checked — or possibly where all boats are checked.

In such an event, the committee must deal with a temptation to modify the ICF rule and make it "better." Probably something like this is sentiment is the cause of the minor rule difference that Scott pointed out from US swimming. There will always be some tension between the desire to make the rules uniform and the desire to make the rules suit your specific purpose.

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