In the early evening of a day that sent snow, hail, rain and wind before a glow of golden sunlight broke through a mournful sky to doff its cap to the approaching gloom, I walked through the streets of Manchester. I was heading back from the MEN Arena, where the world short-course championships will unfold this week against a sleek, black backdrop designed, they say, to bring the presentation of swimming into the 21st Century.
I was born not many miles from the championship venue in a metropolis that would be unrecognisable to my father, let alone my late grandfather, who spent his entire life here and thereabouts in the surrounding towns and the rolling countryside that draws the eye across the rooftops of an evolving cityscape as seen from up on the angel's shoulder of a high-hotel. Chic modern flats, boutique haunts for city slickers with names like 'The Place' that scream a silent 'to be' at a nation drunk on lifestyle, the bars, the babes, the cool restaurants, Armani, Gucci, glamour and a gauntlet of hip and happening distractions that dance along to the tune of bumping, bull-barred 4x4s. What would grandad have said? Doubtless, something like 'bloody 'ell, lad, it's a bit bloody posh r'and 'ere innit?' He wouldn't have be surprised though.
He lived in the age of consumerism that started long before many of us were born: always among the first to buy the latest whatever-it-was that was latest: digital watches, black and white, then colour television, a 'music centre' to replace the old gramophone (I still have that: his Master's Voice and the little dog - they get more beautiful as time goes by), the Dyson of its day that rendered the original Hoover (I have that too) redundant, and so on and so forth.
I dipped down a side road and took the long way home to my temporary tower. Ah! Now here, grandad would have felt at home, in lanes where the soot still clings to bricks of a red-brown hue that you'd struggle to find anywhere else, where the odd cobble can still be seen fighting back the tarmac. Palatial windows, ornate frontages, bygone brands sculpted in stone. Unfashionable for a while, those edifices to the industrial revolution that survived days of decay and demolition only to find themselves coveted by brokers brandishing cheque books in the hope of a healthy return. The ebb and flow of this city links past, present and future, the common thread a ceaseless momentum for change.
What we see outside the MEN Arena this week, we will see in it too. Swimming has reached a watershed. Time to decide which way to go as technological advance takes hold of time and rattles it like a sapling in a sandstorm. Let's be clear, all suit makers have new suits out for Olympic year, but just one has a product on its swimmers that has surfed 18 times into uncharted waters since February 16. Many are in denial, be it coaches, swimmers or officials who wish that the suit debate would disappear up the pool as fast as Eamon Sullivan. Their fate is to be disappointed. The swimming world is divided.
Before diving deeper, best read the small print of rules that have to be followed, and then for clarity's sake, make it your business to heed the words of Mark Schubert, head USA coach, and his no-nonsense take on the matter. His is the most important message to come out of this debate so far in terms of every swimmer, coach and nation heading to Beijing with ambition in heart and mind. The most important too for the suitmakers who face a revolution in the way athletes and others regard contracts and partnerships. Schubert makes clear that the suit DOES enhance performance. No questions, no arguments, no point in swimmers emerging from races saying 'it doesn't matter what you wear'. Here is a quote from Schubert from that linked article: 'My advice to athletes is 'you have a black and white decision' - the money or the gold medal. And it's going to be a real test of character as to what choice they make.' Yes, USA Swimming is tied to Speedo and the LZR Racer. They make no secret of it. But only a fool would read Schubert's words as marketing hype. The advantage of which he speaks is definitively real.
I spent a week at British trials listening to most swimmers and some coaches scoff at the very idea that the suit helps. Kerri-Anne Payne (GBR) didn't. She knew what was happening. She's worked hard with coach Sean Kelly and expected a drop. She got it - and more. Good for her. Good for them. But for contractual reasons, in some cases, and, in others, because they simply have not appreciated the science in their midst, many are in denial. Time to wake up. Schubert's view was backed up by the four swimmers placed on the press conference stand at the MEN Arena: Ryan Lochte, Larsen Jensen, Margaret Hoelzer and Rachel Komisarz. Their comments included: 'It's not light years ahead of the FS-Pro' (Jensen); 'I wouldn't say that ... there's a lot more compression ... it helps you float ... it makes me feel like I'm swimming downhill' (Lochte); 'the biggest factor is compression ... I have massive legs and this suit helps keep them up big time' (Komisarz); 'sizing has been an issue but they [Speedo] have worked on that since the suit was launched and I'm looking forward to trying it out here in Manchester' (Hoelzer).
Hands up all those who think that the USA would say that something gives them a big advantage and then advise their team to make sure they are wearing 'the fast suit' every time they rise to their blocks in Beijing if they did not truly know it was the case? Same question in an Australia context. Next question: can you afford not to believe them? Next question: if you lose a gold (or any) medal by 0.3sec to a man or woman in an LZR this week, this summer, this year, next year, will you wonder? And will you wonder why you didn't do something about it when you could? These are not my questions, they are the questions swilling around the heads and hearts of many athletes who feel torn. To place athletes in that position at any time, but worse still months from an Olympic Games, is unacceptable.
FINA have not deliberately orchestrated this situation, nor did they anticipate (and nor have they yet acknowledged) the undeniable quantum leap that Speedo's technology has caused in the sport. 21.28? 4:32.46? 52.88? 23.97? And many more like that relative to the standard of the swimmer in Australia. It was the same in Britain: 4:33 women's 400m medley; 4:12 men's 400m medley; and 1:56.66 for a 200m freestyle that marked a 4sec pb and was followed by the comment 'it doesn't matter what you wear'. Oh yes it does. Swimmers and coaches deny it at their cost.
The issue of whether the suit helps, and helps significantly, deals with the choice that elite athletes have had to make from the moment FINA approved the suit last year. Which leads us on to the second issue: the rules and process of suit approval. The issue of availability, important as it was for a moment, is a red herring at elite level (I'll return to other markets later on in this piece). This is not about availability. All suits will be available - at a relatively high price - to just about anyone who wants one soon. Nor is this about buoyancy. The suit does not float but it does alter the body position and the relationship between the sum of its parts.
No, this is about whether the most expensive suit in history (around the $500 give or take, depending on model), one that ran up a research and development bill running to many millions (on the back of earlier research over many decades at the helm of suit design), lends a significant advantage. It is about knowing the nature of that advantage. Can anyone governing the sport tell me what the suit is doing, what its properties are, whether it alters the natural response of abdominal tissues, whether it affects the type of signal being sent to the brain under stress? The answer is no, because such things have not been tested for, or if they have, no data has been released.
An expert working in the field of biomimetics, the science of applying designs from nature to solve problems in engineering, materials science, medicine, and other fields, told SwimNews: 'I believe that Speedo knows only some of what it has on its hands. This suit is affecting tissue response, it is affecting sensory perception, it could even be changing the signals sent to the brain when the athlete is under stress and be responsible therefore for altering chemical response. This is the dawn of a new era and swimming as a sport and swimmers as humans need to understand what has arrived in their world and what comes next.'
What comes next for rival suit makers is a steep learning curve. The genie is out of the bottle and trying to put it back in would be more futile than trying to squeeze Alain Bernard in to a Racer designed for Eamon Sullivan. As Schubert says, its catch-up time and for this Olympic season, the race is lost. One of the most fascinating counts at Beijing will be the suit tally, medals and finalists. Speedo is happy to claim what they claim, and coaches like Schubert, linked to the suit maker through the development of the LZR Racer and predecessors are happy to take the inescapable evidence from the clock and tell their charges 'roll up, roll up, this way to the podium, please'.
Arena has issued an open letter outlining its concerns, prompting a response from FINA. Some of that may stray into areas described today by a Speedo source as 'corporate jealousy', but if suit makers genuinely believe that they have been left behind in the race because they did not want to stray beyond what they perceived to be the letter of the law on suits, then the rulebook and approval need revisiting not just for the LZR era but for what might be pulled out of the hat for London 2012, not to mention Moon 2048.
Takes this extract from a letter sent from Diana to FINA seeking clarity: 'It is evident that some costumes of our competitors avail plastic film 'additioned' on the normal fabric. We wonder why it has been authorized the use of plastic material on the normal fabric, in our opinion in violation of the forwarded guidelines? ... in the past, you refused us the use of similar materials and of same thickness of those currently approved to our competitors. FINA has the right to change its guideline on the matter but, if this comes, it should have to be known by everyone because all the companies have same rights and duties towards the rules. ... you assert that no scientific objective evidences subsist to prove that some costumes of competitors help to float. We permit to differ from your opinion since, for instance, an American competitor [Tyr] utilises some parts of Neoprene to produce its swimsuit. Scientific tests, effected for the divers wetsuits made in Neoprene, are actually easily traceable and they prove that Neoprene helps the floatation, in fact some divers must be equiped by counterweights in order to balance their over-floating in the water. Which destiny should have results and records if this effect of floating were scientifically proved? Can a homologation be withdrawn?
There needs to be much more clarity of responsibility over suits. When availability was raised in Britain, the national federation said 'ask FINA', and FINA said 'up to British Swimming'. That is a poor show and should not happen. Poor too that there should have been so many politically correct words stemming from national federations linked financially to Speedo - and that some of those federations have instructed coaches and swimmers to 'say nothing about the suit'. When national federations have said anything at all, they have too often frothed at the mouth over weasel words that have even strayed into accusation. One national federation boss said to me through laughter: 'You journalists must be on Speedo's payroll'. Laughter is often tinged with nervousness, and well might it have been in this case. The truth is that he and his federation are linked financially to Speedo. I am not.
And that being the case, why would a federation wish to deny that its suit of choice is performance enhancing? Perhaps because the rules frown on such definitions. If so, what has to change, the suit (not going to happen) or the rules and processes of suit approval. All suit makers are invited into that process and play a part in determining what is and what is not acceptable. Is it now time to have an independent tester sitting at the table at all times? Not necessarily with a view to banning and restricting but with a role that would also include responsibility for issuing to the wider swimming community the data and details of science that can be verified as being valid. The kind of material that could help swimmers choose their material for the pool and provide useful information for a media being scoffed at for questioning what national federations ought to be questioning themselves as they spend what is often public money.
And talking of money leads us to the tier below elite senior level. A good friend in Australia tells me that young Emily Seebohm managed to split a fair few suits with her fingernails of late. At 15 and already world-class Olympic medal hope, she is among the very rare few who get the suits for free. What of the seven she will race against in a national junior championship, and the 40 others who don't make the final. Where are their parents going to get the Aus$4,000 for five suits that might stretch to two seasons with the careful application of rubber globes, cotton wool and a following wind of good fortune?
Is there a case for restricting use of certain technology to the very elite end of the sport? Are we at that point? Would that be fairer? Would it be unfair? In Australia, some coaches are suggesting a ban at junior level, where the community is clearly heading for a division of haves and have-nots. When the USA started using triple wave-breakers down each lane in the 1970s, FINA banned the practice on the grounds that the rest of the world could not afford to follow. Can the world of junior swimming sustain the LZR Racer and suits of the future?
Speedo is not making the suit for tiny tots. But some elite seniors are smaller than junior developers, so restriction on size is not an option. Restriction on type of meet is. Such control may go against the grain of market forces and the free-flowing world that we have come to know but I refer back to the biomimetics expert who suggests that organ function could be altered by compression. Can anyone tell me whether such a thing applies to the Speedo suit? Can anyone tell me what the precise effect on the body is? Can anyone tell me if such things are significant for developing bodies? The questions are endless. And if they don't apply to this generation of suits, they will do so for the one to come.
Doping on a hanger is how the suit has been described dramatically by one source. Testing agencies are almost always one step or several behind those looking eternally for the next way to cheat. Let that not be the case with suits. Now would be a good time to address the whole issue of how and by whom technology is approved. We are not talking about golf clubs, gear sticks and other external equipment. The new suits live on and with the body to some extent. They influence and enhance performance. They lend the sport a spectacular look.
I have read much correspondence between people in very high swimming offices and coaches and others from around the world on the suit issue of late. One thing stands out: far too many national federation folk with a toe in power at FINA, LEN, IOC and elsewhere, clearly have not understood the arguments and have no intention of doing anything about it. Anyone who complains is filed in the folder marked 'Luddites'. I've actually seen the term used several times in one set of e-mails.
Particularly poignant that reference: the Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the early 19th Century, who protested against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution. The changes threatened their livelihood, so they destroyed the mechanised looms that were destined to change their world.
Sudden change can jolt any community. So it has been with the LZR in swimming. FINA, just like everybody else beyond those who helped to develop the Speedo LZR Racer, was caught in the waves caused by the new technology but has now responded in timely fashion by agreeing to meet suit makers 'to examine issues in connection with the swimsuit approval ... however, to the best of our knowledge, there is no objective scientific evidence on the alleged buoyancy advantage provided by the Speedo LZR Racer or any other swimsuit approved by FINA'. Buoyancy, as stated above, is not the issue. It is for all suit makers and FINA to ensure that 'objective scientific evidence' is available. If you produce a Matchbox car for little boys, there are certain relatively simple guidelines to observe. If you produce the fastest Porsche the world has ever seen, the specification had better be made available and had better be accurate. It better pass safety tests and the data had better be able to stand up in a court of law when the widow of a crash victim comes calling.
These are issues that businessman Stephen Rubin, here in Manchester with two hats on - chairman of Pentland, owner of Speedo, and head of the organising committee of the World short-course Championships - will doubtless know well. Will he insist on independent testing? Does he think that the scientific data his company has provided to FINA is worthy? Would it stand up to independent scientific scrutiny? If so, then all talk of there being 'no objective scientific evidence' cannot stand. The two positions are untenable when seated at the same table. The next five days of racing in Manchester will be as much about the battle of the suits as the battle of the swimmers as the sport reaches a technological crossroads just as professionalism and big bucks have skidded into view.
US$400,000 in prize money will be handed out by FINA at the MEN Arena, after a 2007 season in which more than $5 million was handed out. Great news. Great challenges too. What happens when a man with bulging pockets walks through the door and says 'Hey, here's a billion, let's shake it up - showtime! But I want 'em all in flippers.' Take away the caricature and find a spot somewhere in the middle. There lies reality, twixt the soot that clings to the red bricks of Manchester and the shiny metal tower block muscling its way into the future. Time and technology. There is no holding them back. Embrace them, but mould them to suit the wearer - and above all, know as precisely as possible what you've got and where its leading you.
Is swimming ready for the challenge?