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Lest We Forget in 2014: What happened with the suits anyway?

Jan 1, 2014  - SwimNews Editorial

Swimming may be the only sport that actually and explicitly prohibits the use of equipment. FINA rule SW10.7 states that assistance is against the rules and those rules seem to cover apparel. Prior to 2009 the rule stated: “No swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device that may aid his speed, buoyancy, or endurance during a race (such as webbed gloves, flippers, fins, etc.) Goggles may be worn.” The rule’s intention and spirit seem to be clear. SW10.7 made the suit simply apparel and not a part of the sport’s measured performance.

Events have unfolded over a number of decades that have brought competitive swimming to a place where performance enhancing swimwear, used as equipment, is now the norm. This situation exists in spite of a rule that defined swimwear as only to have the function of apparel.

Because of SW10.7, a swimsuit had a relative ceiling of expense because it was not equipment but a piece of clothing. People were simply unwilling to pay above a certain amount of money for a suit that was clothing and not a function of performance. The customary sporting goods business model didn’t really apply.

Swimming seems to be incrementally and some might say stealthily following the models of Golf and Tennis. These “CONSUMER SPORTS”, research and promote incremental equipment changes that either actually improve performance or create a perception of improvement that drives first the professionals and then the recreational consumer to spend more money to keep up with the new performance parameters. A trip to any sporting goods store shows seasonal, annual, and even bi annual demand for new rackets, balls, and clubs and ever more expensive prices. Are swimsuits doomed to follow this pattern as well? If so, how did we get here?

How swimwear evolved

In the past, the longstanding concept of reducing water resistance as a major factor in faster swimming led to a focus in the swimming community on ways to reduce drag that occurred with the flow of water over the body. The practice of “shaving down” and eliminating body hair before racing is an example of this thinking. Prior to the 1990s, swimsuit design followed a principle that less suit meant less drag , so over time, suits got smaller and as different textiles were developed; material got thinner and lighter.

Once suits got as small as possible, the next step in drag reduction was to design materials that were “better than skin” at shedding water. This idea made it logical to cover more of the body rather than less if you truly wanted to aid performance with a swimsuit. The obstacle to this path should have been the spirit and the letter of Rule SW 10.7

Suits began to appear in the 1990s that did, in fact, add material to the suit, usually to the leg area. These suits viewed through the history of swimsuit design were a novelty. They were more expensive than traditional suits and made claims of performance enhancement. It was, however, unclear from the patterns of usage, whether or not these suits actually did aid performance. Many swimmers still opted for more skin exposure by wearing traditional suits. A final at a big competition in those days was a mixture of these newer suits and the old traditional suits that exposed more skin. In this period of performance ambiguity; swimsuit companies began more aggressive marketing of body coverage as an aid to performance.

A predictable marketing cycle began. Sometime during the year prior to the Olympics, manufacturers would announce new scientifically proven swimsuit technology. Claims would be made that the wearer of the suit would be faster than competitors who did not wear that new and improved suit design. Stories would be told about research and people with PhDs would add their endorsement; but no peer reviewed research or data would ever be shown to support the manufacturers’ claims. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the performance enhancement claims were usual based on a change to the material that caused the water to flow over the surface of the body with less drag.

An additional and major influence to the acceptance of more body coverage with new and more fabric, was the performance of the world’s dominant swimmer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Australia’s Ian Thorpe who was sponsored by Adidas. Adidas made a custom black suit for Thorpe that was not available to the general public. The suit covered all of his body, save his hands, feet, neck, and head. Advertisements showed Thorpe in a wind tunnel with vapor sliding around his body as proof that that the suit allowed him to be more streamlined, a clear violation of SW10.7. Inexplicably, FINA allowed Thorpe to use the suit. (Or not? ISL, FINA's corrupt sports marketing firm in the late 1990s and early 2000s was headed by Adidas (and Arena) founder, Adi Dassler.) In the early part of the millennium, other suit companies attempted to follow Adidas and to innovate their designs. In the early 2000s it became more common to see more of the body covered by fabric at swimming meets.

Then in 2004, Speedo landed an exclusive deal to be FINA's partner at World Championships. “For each event Speedo will have unique access and branding, recognition in the official printed material related to the championships and exclusive press opportunities which will reinforce the brand’s authority in the pool,” read the press release, which continued, “Speedo will also work with FINA to develop global marketing, promotional and advertising campaigns to extend Speedo’s relationship with FINA beyond the FINA World Championships events.”

The trend towards more body coverage continued until 2008, when changes to competitive swimwear led to events that would threaten to make “swimsuits as equipment” a permanent part of the sport.

The story of the LZR

In the now predictable swimsuit rollout in an Olympic year, Speedo released in early 2008 a suit with “drag reducing” shiny and smooth polyurethane panels merged into a thin woven polyester suit. Again, FINA approved the suit.

Two things became immediately clear. The suit made people swim much faster; and they were expensive. In addition, the suits were not at all durable. They were difficult to get in and out of and the suits first users would often tear, rip or otherwise ruin a new suit while trying to put it on. Demand far outstripped Speedo’s ability to provide suits to competitors.

What came next can only be described as comic chaos. World records were broken at virtually every swim meet. Swimmers became distracted. Athletes became preoccupied with first acquiring a suit; then planning for up to 30 minutes of pre-race time to, with help from others, to put the suit on; and finally to have a contingency plan for the all too common occurrence of a rupture in the fabric or a broken zipper. The LZR was so fragile, that many expensive suits never even made it to the water.

With the Beijing Olympics approaching, competitive pressure became paramount. Other swim suit companies that had self-regulated their designs to at least partially adhere to the spirit of SW10.7 were caught flat footed. By the spring of 2008 everyone wanted to maximize their Olympic dream in a LZR and no one wanted anything else. Suit companies had no time to innovate their own design, much less go into production before the Olympics. There was the problem of the submission cycle for FINA suit approval. The last deadline had passed and under increasing media scrutiny and visibility, FINA had to open another window for design submission.

Even corporate giant Nike, a $20 billion dollar a year company with aspirations of becoming a player in competitive swimming could not respond to the popularity of the LZR. Nike was the sponsor of the Olympic host Chinese team, but had to eventually capitulate and allow the Chinese swimming team to wear what it wanted at its home showcase. In Beijing Chinese swimmers wore Speedo.

The period of 2008 leading up to and including the Olympics, were an unparalleled period of constant new world records. Swimmers discovered that by wearing 2 and sometimes 3 LZR suits, they could swim even faster. This was a remarkable reversal for a sport which for decades, had been trying to get rid of the effects of swim suits. Now swimmers were layering to add more effect from the suits that they wore.

Prior to 2009 suits were approved by FINA through a process: an application, a fee, and a suit were sent to FINA. There were periodic deadlines through the year. FINA processed the application and then either approved or rejected the suit in accordance with its own rules. No testing protocols were revealed, so it is unclear how compliance with SW10.7was determined by FINA. Janet Evans and Alexander Popov headed up the FINA Athletes Committee during this time.

Why the LZR worked

In February 2009, Milton Nelms, a specialist in swimming technique and swimmer physical development wrote and was interviewed for a series of articles in this magazine. In it he described the effects of buoyancy on performance. “The simple version was this: the suits floated and changed the whole dynamic of swimmers travel through the water,” said Nelms. “There were other aspects of assistance but buoyancy was the blunt and inartistic element that made things work. That was why 2 suits worked better than 1, and 3 better than 2. The polyurethane panels were extremely hydrophobic. If you cut a square of a few inches of one of the panels and push it to the bottom of a sink of water; you can barely withdraw your hand faster than the panel will pop back to the surface. Swimmers that I knew and worked with were frantic about getting these suits out of the competitive environment, so I approached Craig Lord and SwimNews with the idea of an article.”

Nelms reflects today, “Looking back, the articles were a bit pedantic, but I was trying to alert the swimming federations and the coaching community as to what was going on so that they would rise up and push back. The articles contained information that Bill Boomer (a pioneering swimming expert) had been talking about since the 1980s, so I thought that all I had to do was connect the dots and everyone would charge city hall.” In hindsight Nelms may have been naïve and by not realizing how the sporting goods industry actually worked, he may have inadvertently made things worse. “One manufacturer told me that the SwimNews article was very helpful in his company’s manufacturing process.” Nelms remarked sadly.

As chaotic months leading up to the Beijing games were a prelude to the near silliness that described swimming performance following the Games and leading towards the 2009 World Championships. Blue 70, a New Zealand company had gotten approval for an Open Water swim suit that crossed over to use in the pool. Their suit was lightweight and extremely buoyant. Swimmers likened it to a wetsuit and it was more durable than Speedo’s product. Suddenly the LZR was yesterday’s news.

In the crazy times that followed, swimsuit companies that had not existed before came out of the woodwork and started making flotation devices that people could wear. It turned into an arms race and there were clear winners and losers. Often, less fit and overweight swimmers were beating very good and very fit swimmers for the first time. More brands of suit, like Jaked, followed seemingly every few weeks; each with more and better flotation. The dynamic of swimming had changed.

Finally, as the 2009 World Championships arrived and the public had become numb to the breaking of world records, FINA heard the outrage of its constituents. The IGB amended SW10.7 to add the word “swimsuits” to further clarify what sorts of devices were prohibited. They promptly published a list of technical guidelines for suits and commissioned a panel of scientists to monitor new suits. Basic rule changes eliminated zippers and fasteners; limited fabric coverage to the knees and waist for men, and eliminated sleeves for women. Other new rules limited fabric thickness and effectively eliminated the poly-panels.

Where are we now?

After a short period of regrouping, swimming times seem to be again on the upsweep and current swimming suits seem to be at least a part of the success. If a simple measure of performance is what people pay to achieve; then the current generation of swim suits are enhancing performance. Elite athletes are wearing suits that are far more expensive than plain apparel suits. If the suits were not helping then wouldn’t we see some male athletes in briefs and at least some female athletes wearing suits without leg fabric?

Looking at results it appears that times are again getting faster though there does seem to be a disparity between short course and long course. Short course is improving at a faster rate amongst more swimmers. Reasons for this are still being sought. Nelms says, “Even a little flotation helps some aspects of the turns and start breakouts. This generation of suits might be helping short course swimmers more than long course. I don’t see any aspects of training to explain this difference so that is my best guess. We could use some research.”

Back in 2004, Paul Phedon, Vice President of Marketing at Speedo said about the FINA deal, “This is an exciting time for Speedo as we continue to support international swimming from grass roots to elite level. The partnership with FINA reinforces our dominant position in the pool, and our support of FINA and some of the world’s best swimmers allow us to build on our success in the competitive swimming world. It is a great honour to be given the opportunity to work with FINA for the next four years and help build the future of swimming.”

What is clear is that competitive swimming is no longer a sport that tries, through its rules, to be about the unaided interaction between the swimmer and the water. Swimming has changed, and like golf and tennis, is a sporting goods based business that will now seek to introduce incremental and performance enhancing changes in its wearable equipment. Is this really what the swimming community wants?