What is a Hype Cycle and what does it say about the state of Marathon Swimming?

The Hype Cycle is a new type of swimming stroke in development for triathletes that is likely to soon be adopted into the wider world of marathon swimming after FINA adopt it as the official sixth stroke. As developed by the University of Portsmouth’s famous open water safety research department, instead of standard arm-stroke the research indicated that by continually rotating their arms in a cycling-type motion that in turn drives a whipping lateral motion which translates into forward propulsion, these action result an energy and thermogenic efficient stroke coupled with minimal leg action. Actually, no, it’s not.

A Hype Cycle is an analysis pattern that is applied by data and trends analysts (developed by Gartner, one of the best known analysis firms) to look at emerging technologies.

I wondered if the Hype Cycle could be applied to open water swimming, or (ostensibly) amateur marathon swimming. Because that’s how this blog works! I steal, borrow ideas (like the popular post on the Dunning Kruger Effect and open water swimming) and reapply them to swimming.

An illustration of the Gartner Analysis Hype Cycle data pattern graph

Classic Gartner Data Trend Hype Cycle

The key features of a Hype Cycle are its five distinct phases which can be recognised in the life cycle of the subject under review.

A photo of legendary first female English Channel Gertrude Ederle's swimming goggles

Gertrude Ederle’s goggles now in the Smithsonian museum

1. The Technology Trigger is first. Often a new scientific breakthrough or discovery leads to a first generation product which initiates a true Technology Hype Cycle. In our case however, and for the sake of argument, let’s call the technologies..Grease, Goggles and Front Crawl! I can’t really make a case for woolen swim attire. Though for marathon swimming it’s more a confluence of events, simple technology and stroke type.

The trigger phase can be dated exactly as the period extending from August 25rd, 1875 when Captain Matthew Webb swam the English Channel and became the most famous swimmer in history to Gertrude Ederle’s 1927 Channel swim. (Which I think always comes as surprise to the young pool swimmers out there when I tell them that actually Michael Phelps is probably only the third most famous or shall we say lauded, swimmer ever). There’s a plausible argument that Lord Byron’s Hellespont swim in 1810 was the original trigger but most people relate this more to the general sport of open water swimming rather than marathon swimming. The first open water swimming goggles (actually motorcycles goggles) as used by Thomas Burgess in 1911 and by Ederle of course in 1927 are also part of the Trigger phase as was both Thomas Burgess’s second English Channel swim and Ederle’s record-setting English Channel swim when she was also the first to use front crawl.

Primus Inter Pares.

Primus Inter Pares.

2. Some early success leads to a surge in expectations as we climb to The Peak of Inflated Expectations. Webb, Burgess, Ederle and Chadwick were names known around the world. Parades were held, statues eventually erected and vast columns of laudatory newsprint filled. Humans, at least some humans, had become Homo Sapiens Aquaticus. Ted and Jon Erickson, Alison Streeter, Tom Blower, Mike Read, Vicki Keith, Phil Rush and more. Time passes in decades, swims proliferate, swimmers achieve astonishing success.

3. But two things happened that indicated to me that we’ve actually passed that summit.

First there was She Who Must Not Be Named, as the Marathon Swimmers Forum has come to call Diana Nyad. Frauds are an old part of marathon swimming with th†e Channel Swim Association being formed partly response to Dorothy Logan’s fraudulent 1927 English Channel claim. Despite modern communications and technology, frauds proliferate, attracted by the idea that due to remote nature of the sport and the unquestioning nature of media coverage, they can’t be seen to be questioned. I think we’re into the The Trough of Disillusionment. Public interest wanes despite further astonishing swims like three-way English Channel swims. Marathon swimming becomes like the latter days of the Apollo Program: Swimmers go where no-one has ever gone before, and in the main, the world doesn’t care, and where it does engage, it’s not because of the swimming but usually because of marketing.

Most media coverage is ill-informed and some coverage becomes negative. (I’ve certainly written some of that negative coverage though I prefer writing the most positive stories such as Sylvain Estadieu or Trent Grimsey. But I also prefer truth and dis-disillusionment to self-deceit so I’d personally prefer that mainstream media would cover the reality of the sport including its flaws instead of the self- promoters††. The Trough of Disillusionment is heedless of the many honourable and positive participants, and we all become ensnared in its slough somehow.

The other may be more contentious in the marathon swimming community, I acknowledge I am one of the few that likely thinks so. The Ocean’s Seven became part of marathon swimming and a circuit. Superficially, it looks good for marathon swimming as it garners that lacking public interest. More swimmers become interested in collecting the badge of the achievement. Swims rarely previously attempted double or quadruple the number of aspirants. The collection of swims is fantastic, the swimmers highly capable, but I question what the idea is doing to the sport. Few have yet realised the negative effect it’s having on swim integrity and legitimacy. Some of the swims chosen are purely arbitrary and even a bad choice. Two swims on the Ocean’s Seven circuit do not require an observer. Other organisations are struggling with their own response and some of the swims and organisations have questions over whether they should have been included in the first place and in the second place, lead the astute observer or swimmer to question who benefits from some of these swims suddenly becoming popular. Lastly I would question if the pioneering spirit of swimming in being lost. Kevin Murphy, Ali Streeter, Mike Read, the swimmers of what we could probably and realistically call the “Golden Age” of marathon swimming swam so many swims in so many diverse and challenging locations that truly they seemed to be the first or greatest of an aquatic human hybrid.

4. The best thing about applying the Hype Cycle concept, is that it comes with an inbuilt optimism. The worst thing is of course that it entirely lacks any credibility when used as I am (mis-)using it. After all I put in the title that the Hype Cycle was saying something about the state of marathon swimming, when of course it’s me that making these inferences. Following the Trough is The Slope of Enlightenment where the subject under discussion embarks on a more realistic steady development. There are of course no hard markers, the edges are fuzzy and over-lapping. Some people could be on the Slope while behind others are still diving off the Peak to belly-flop ignominiously in the deep Trough of ego and cheating actions.

I started this article as a mere diversion, but at the time (and still in honesty) suffering a lot of disillusionment about the marathon swimming world. Evan and I had a discussion asking how many of the swims on the Ocean’s Seven circuit actually have the rigorous legitimacy required by the sport, and our conclusion isn’t good. But strangely, when I thought about the concept of the Slope leading to better things, I felt I could firmly place a few things very firmly on the slope even if they are the lower slopes:

  • Though it’s been around for while, the much revered English Channel and the CS&PF continues to be a beacon for probity in marathon swimming along with such swim organisations as the CCSA and SBCSA and others. This from me, whose proudest achievement will always be the channel swimmer appellation will always be my most prized possession, isn’t entirely surprising, (though North and Catalina and Santa Barbara and Maui are all also channel swimmers).
  • The majority of individual swimmers and organisations are honourable. We need to protect them.
  • The increase in social media and online discussion is and will increasingly making corruption and fake and fraudulent swims more difficult and calls out organisational problems. It’s just that some of the swim organisations and old boys networks of the past haven’t realised the change that has already occurred.
  • Though I said it two years ago, the writing and release and subsequent endorsement by some of the most accomplished marathon swimmers ever of the Marathon Swimmers Federation first set of Global Rules for Marathon Swimming set a standard for probity and integrity of individual swims and I think is part of the way forward. We all as swimmers, commenters, and organisations need to get back to first principles of Observed swims.

So while it’s hard and steep and only some of us are on it, the idea of a Slope of Enlightenment gives me some hope for the sport, and I look forward to more people joining us on it, because if the sport doesn’t get it, the Trough will never end and the sport will be doomed by the cheats and frauds and those organisations and individuals who stay silent and lend passive support.

As a sport we are right now where the International Cycling Federation was in the early 1990’s, where some know there are problems but few are acknowledging them†, (though our problem is fraudulent swims and ignoring rules rather than I think, performance enhancing drugs). On a slope covered by snow in a blizzard the only way forward is to follow the marked path a few have risked. Marathon swimming as a whole can stay in the Trough of Disillusionment or ordinary individual marathon swimmers, who often say to me that they don’t feel like the big issues have anything to do with them or what they do, can start to get vocal and engaged. Because if they don’t, after they have moved on to golf or bingo and left marathon swimming behind, the very thing that they pursued will be devalued and corrupted.

Marathon Swimming Hype cycle

The Marathon Swimming Hype Cycle

5. The Slope is followed by The Plateau of Performance (originally it’s Productivity but I’m not above rebranding to suit my needs) which is mainstream adoption. By one view this isn’t a valid comparison to technology as not everyone is going to become a swimmer, let alone a marathon swimmer. But what if it applied to the whole marathon swimming world? What could we expect that future to look like and what would it entail? Well, here are some thoughts:

  • All declared marathon swims would have Official Observers. If you think this is the current case, you are sadly mistaken and you are mistaken even with current swims on the Ocean’s Seven circuit.
  • All Observers would be trained and impartial.
  • All sanctioning swim organisation would strive to ensure that their members who are in positions of power and influence do not suffer Conflicts of Interest. Swim organisations will act decisively if they discover such conflicts.
  • Swim organisations will maintain member’s Register of Interests or similar.
  • All sanctioning swim organisations would be transparent. We expect (and often don’t get) that the organisations that impact our working or mundane living lives are transparent, so why do we not insist on the same with a sport which in which people place their lives into the care of others?
  • All swims would be recorded and the record open to the general public for review. (I hear a collective shudder at the idea of the current privacy of swims being violated, but we need to learn to accept that it will become inevitable and it’s already more necessary than most may realise).
  • Rules would be public.
  • Pilot’s experience would be a matter of public record leading to better more informed choice for swimmers.
  • It would be acceptable to the community for people other than pilots to provide paid services such as crewing, coaching, and recording.
  • There would be a global umbrella organisation for all marathon and channel swimming organisations which would help to promote the sport, drive best practice and support both swimmers and organisations.

There’s a sociological argument that marathon swimming currently is built partly on delusion. That the sport was never as pure, never as unassisted as we argue. Of course we know that. That argument misses the point. People who are interested in sports at an amateur level are almost ridiculed for over-involvement in something that doesn’t really matter. We all get to choose our interests also, and what we care about and caring about marathon swimming doesn’t mean we don’t care about the desperate people trying to cross the Mediterranean in hope of escaping conflict, or climate change, or any other global or regional issue of any note.

There is no real reason why amateur passions and interests and the motivations and concerns that derive from them should be less important to people personally that loftier concerns. Caring about one thing does not imply an exclusivity to other matters. The fact that frauds in marathon swimming existed right back to the Golden Age, that the technology has actually changed despite our espousing a purity that the sociologists say never existed, overlooks that most marathon swimmers aspire to an ideal or a set of principles. We define ourselves in part by what we believe in, and what we wish to uphold.

It is amateur and social involvement and engagement that adds colour and zest to people’s lives. Society means social and for the society or community of marathon swimmers collectively protecting the ideals and aspirations is to protect the existence and well-being of the sport and the majority of people involved. We should not expect less honesty, less transparency and less integrity in something just because it’s a recreational interest.

Some of us can genuinely, honestly want to see a better  future that will allow future swimmers to amaze us with their feats. I hope you will voice your concerns where appropriate for the current state and hopes for the future of the sport.




† {I'm a swim blogger, not a journalist so I do not have the same, or indeed any, protection afforded me to go after some of the matters in the sport that need exposure}.
†† {For example saying you have swum a double English Channel swim as a way of pretending legitimacy and implying an astonishing feat done by few, when in reality you were part of a relay, or neglecting to mention the call out of Rescue helicopters because of irresponsible and reckless planning, or neglecting to mention that a swim was directly witnessed by eight English Channel solo swimmers to have failed, and using personal influence to get unsuccessful swims ratified, or using a one-way Channel rely to be used in a similar self-aggrandizing fashion to dupe gullible beginners and triathletes out of their money}.

7 thoughts on “What is a Hype Cycle and what does it say about the state of Marathon Swimming?

  1. Pingback: The World’s Best Guide to Open and Cold Water Swimming | LoneSwimmer

  2. Donal, great post!
    It’s a fine alignment of the Visibility principal to Marathon Swimming.

    And I agree with all your listed “thoughts” under Plateau of Performance….as a beacon of goals to keep swimming toward. 🙂



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