The swimming portion of the Rio Olympics has been over for days, but that doesn’t mean the intrigue has stopped. Of course, there’s the increasingly bizarre Ryan Lochte saga, but a new report suggests that results from certain events may be tarnished by the dysfunctional, slapdash setup of the games. Namely, the pool likely had a current.
A breathtakingly in-depth analysis by swimming site SwimSwam investigated the splits of all swimmers in Rio by lane and found that the closer swimmers got to lane 8 on one side of the pool, the faster they would swim in one direction and the slower in the other. There was also a minor current in the opposite direction on the other end, towards lane 1. This is obviously antithetical to the Olympic ideal of a level playing field to determine the best athlete, full stop, but how much of a difference could it make?
For most races, run in both directions, it’s probably negligible, but the 50m, which lacks both the mitigating factors of balanced direction and time, was undeniably affected. A current is apparently more common in temporary pools, which is the category under which the Rio pool falls. We’ll let SwimSwam break it down for you:
48% of the improvement in time in Rio, and 36% in Barcelona, can be explained by moving from the left hand side of the pool to the right hand side, with an extremely small pvalue. The slope is large as well, 0.2% improvement per lane as swimmers move to the higher lane numbers. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but consider that 2nd through 4th place in the womens 50 free came from the favored lanes and just 0.1 seconds separated Simone Manuel in 2nd (from lane 7) from Ranomi Kromowidjojo in 6th (from lane 3). That’s 0.4% of the race, and it looks as if Manuel got a relative 0.8% boost.
Put more simply, it appears as if the current may have helped to decide the medal stand in the 50m race, which is a deeply disquieting thought which FINA, the international swimming governing body, is investigating. Of course, if there’s one thing that will make athletes feel better, it’s this: American Anthony Ervin won gold in 50m, and he did it lane 3, on the opposite side of the pool from the current.