The men’s 50 backstroke final on the last day of the swimming competition at the 2022 FINA World Aquatics Championships saw a wild turn of events fitting of the unpredictable nature of the meet.
American swimmer Justin Ress touched first in the 50 backstroke final, only to be disqualified for being completely submerged at the finish. The call was unlikely coincidental – there were complaints after prior rounds of competition, and the officials may have been tipped to watch for the infraction.
That meant his American teammate Hunter Armstrong was awarded the gold medal.
After the medal ceremony, however, an appeal by Ress resulted in an overturning of the disqualification and a reinstatement of his first gold medal.
In a touching moment, Armstrong handed the gold medal back to his teammate, saying afterward that he preferred to not win by DQ (which would have also been his first World title).
“I would have rather taken second and had him with me than having me get the title with the DQ,” Armstrong said. “That’s not how I wanted it. I was just incredibly proud of him. He’s just an amazing athlete, a great talent, and completely raw. He’s capable of so much. To have that taken away from him, it sucks.”
When conducting video review, officials use different cameras than are available to the public via a closed-circuit system. On Saturday, SwimSwam requested access to the video that was used to overturn the call, and a spokesperson said he would inquire about it. As of posting on Sunday, FINA has not provided that video.
This means that the best view of the finish that we have is from the NBC feed provided online.
Here is that finish, first in real-time, then frame-by-frame.
We can see that Ress, in lane 4 (counting from the top of the screen), clearly does a foot kick at the finish like most of his competitors. It is not as pronounced as some (Armstrong, beneath him, has a bigger and more obvious kick), but it is definitely there.
There is also definitely a moment, after he has finished, where he is completely submerged – as are most swimmers.
So then the question becomes: when did his foot-flip end, and did his feet re-submerge before the finish?
The above-water view is certainly not conclusive. Remember that ‘submerging’ is relative to the calm surface of the water, not any splash, nor any wake or troughs created by the athlete’s body (though toes poking through troughs can be almost-impossible to call).
While Ress’ splash obscures where his feet are at the finish, the arch of his body at the touch definitely make it feasible that his toes were still above the water.
Whether FINA has another view that is more conclusive, we will probably never know. Any surface-level cameras would likely have their view obscured by the splash as well, and given the nature of the call, it doesn’t seem as though underwater cameras have the angle to properly discern whether he had broken the surface.
So this call might come down to whether the ‘benefit-of-the-doubt’ on FINA’s video review system goes to the athlete or to the initial call made in the pool. In most sports, a video review requires conclusive evidence to overturn a call made in the field of play – but most of those sports have a wide array of cameras and are without the challenges of ‘splash’ to obscure the view of those cameras.
FINA has never publicly announced which approach it takes.
This call probably comes down to the eye of the viewer. The video doesn’t appear to conclusively confirm that Ress was submerged, nor clear him of having done so.
As it is, Ress walks away with the gold, Armstrong the silver, and Poland’s Ksawery Masiuk takes the bronze. For his part, Italian Thomas Ceccon, who is demoted to 4th place, echoed Armstrong’s sentiments that a DQ is not the way he wanted to win a medal.
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