- They Ruled the Pool: The 100 Greatest Swimmers in History by Lohn, John, and: Duels in the Pool: Swimming’s Greatest Rivalries by De George, Matthew
After reading these books, I was uncertain how to responsibly review them. It is useful to have critical facts about the world’s best swimmers collected in an easy to read series of books, yet I have some troubling concerns. They Ruled the Pool provides short biographic sketches of one hundred champion swimmers in rank order of their importance as determined by John Lohn, senior writer for Swimming World Magazine. The biographic sketches average just over 500 words. They focus almost entirely on the highlights of each swimmer’s [End Page 519] athletic performances,and offer limited insights into other aspects of their lives, training, or non-swimming accomplishments. Negative facts, such as the Danish swimmer Ragnhild Hveger’s collaboration with the Nazis in World War II, were largely suppressed. And, adding insult to the injury, the author ranked East German female swimming star Kristin Otto, who used performance-enhancing drugs, eight places above Shirley Babashoff, whose athletic performances were minimized because Otto and other “Iron-Curtain” swimmers systematically cheated by doping to enhance their performance.
Perhaps, the problems I am concerned about are inherent in the book’s format, which does not account for a variety of variables that should affect the choice of information reported and the validity of comparisons made. Among the problems I see in making comparisons are: a) How does the evolution of the sport over time, such as improvements in coaching, swimming venues, swimming techniques, training, schedules for major competitions, and the financial support given during training impact comparisons? After all, seventeen of the swimmers ranked were born before 1921 and just over half were born before 1960; b) Is it appropriate to make comparisons of swimmers between athletes swimming different events? For example, is it fair to compare a breast stroke specialist with a backstroke specialist? and c) What criteria, other than the author’s judgment, were used to rank swimmers? Why is it appropriate to rank men and women together? Why are Olympic medals, apparently, afforded greater value than world championships and world records? These concerns aside, John Lohn’s voice and bibliography are useful to sport historians.
Duels in the Pool by Matthew De George, a sportswriter for the Delaware County Daily Times in a Philadelphia suburb, seeks to use great rivalries to report on swimming history. The book is well researched and offers interesting insight into a sport that has had few scholarly champions. The rivalries that caught my attention were those between Rie Mastenbroek and Ragnhild Hveger; Michael Phelps and the 100-meter Butterfly field; Shirley Babashoff and East German Doping; College men vs. Title IX; and the continuing waves of dominant college swimming programs.
De George does a credible job of giving relevance and meaning to events that generally escape a reporter’s eye.