Last modified: Thursday, September 28, 2000
Olympic women swimmers eclipse predictions of IU researcher
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A noted exercise physiologist at Indiana University is considering a variety of reasons for discrepancies between predicted and actual winning times for women swimmers at the Olympic games.
"Our projections for the men and women at the U.S. swimming trials and for the men at the Olympics were right on line, but the women at the Olympics swam faster in several events," said Joel Stager, director of the IU Human Performance Laboratory. Stager used the top swimming times for more than 30 years to predict the winning times at the Olympics in Australia.
His findings are posted at http://www.indiana.edu/~hplab/olympic_predictions.html
At the U.S. trials, his predicted times were off by 0.23 percent for the women and 0.37 percent for the men in 13 events. His projections for the men at the Olympics were within this range of accuracy, except for two events when the winning times were considerably faster than predicted. For the Olympic women, however, the winning times were significantly faster than predicted in five of the 13 events.
Stager, who is internationally known for his swimming research, is trying to determine why this occurred. "So far, we can point to a few things that probably would not have made a difference alone but taken together could result in the faster times," he said.
These include the experience of the swimmers, since many of the women were older than in previous competitions. "It's simply not true that women swimmers peak in their teenage years. American college-age and post-college women now dominate the sport, whereas years ago it was dominated by junior high school girls," he said. He cited the performances of Jenny Thompson, 27, and Dara Torres, 33, the two most-decorated American swimmers at Sydney, to support this view. "We have managed to keep successful athletes, and in some cases superstars, in the sport, and they performed well," he said. He previously directed a study that showed the average age of elite women swimmers increased 3.5 years from 1973 to 1992, and this trend is continuing today.
Stager discounted the effect of the new full-body swimsuits, noting that if they had been an important factor, the men's results would have shattered his predictions as well.
However, drugs cannot be overlooked as a possible influence. "Unfortunately, many of the illegal, performance-enhancing drugs are extremely difficult to detect, so we have to say they could be a factor," he said.
Another factor he cited is sociological. "Through time in the weight room, many of these female athletes have developed bodies that the public perceives as something to strive for instead of to be ashamed of. We are providing these women with the incentives and motivations to continue with the training necessary to succeed at a world class level," he said.
Stager, a national champion in masters swimming, is editor of The Journal of Swimming Research. He can be reached at 812-855-1637 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(prepared by Richard Doty)