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Suit Week: In The Beginning

Oct 20, 2008  - Craig Lord

At no other time in history has the sport of swimming voted for schism when it comes to the use of suits or other forms of equipment. When electronic timing came in, it was available to all, the same with goggles, the same with starting blocks, wave-breaker lane ropes - and so on and so forth. Yet American under 12s will not be able to race in the LZR Racer or similar fast-skin suits, nor will NCAA college swimmers in the US. An unwritten rule as Australian age-groups was that the suits would not be worn. Now senior Australian coaches are due to discuss the suit matter further and tomorrow in New South Wales, coaches will consider the use of asterisks or markers on the record books when it comes to pre-February 2008 efforts and post-February 2008 efforts. How did the sport of swimming come to this - and where will the debate about technology end? 

Part One: The Background

There are those who would prefer the following debate to be kept out of the gaze of the majority. Closed-door stuff can be useful where diplomacy is paramount. But then we are talking about swimming - and in particular swimming suits. Before we begin to wade back through the extraordinary events that have come to pass in the pool this year, let's be clear: this exercise is not one that attempts to find blame. Clear water in the mire is what we're after on the way to finding a way out of the mess that swimming has sunk into in pursuit of fast times that would not have been as fast had it not been for new technology (no point in denying it, truly there is not).

The e-waves are alive with the views, for, against and uncommitted, of coaches the world over. Politicians are more careful, preferring to meet in secret to discuss issues (one of those being the suits) in the light of a certain 2009 FINA presidential election. FINA is no more at fault in the whole suit issue than the many coaches and swimmers who have been happy to surf the high-tech wave while saying "high-tech wave - what high-tech wave?". There is a difference between swimmers, coaches and FINA, however (we will come to suitmakers later in the week): the international federation has power vested in it, via the national federations it represents, to make a difference. It is the ultimate arbiter, rule-maker, judge, jury and trend-setter. What it says, goes. 

No-one believes that FINA is about to tell Speedo or anyone else to put an expensive and successful toy back in the box. How could it? It gave the premission to open the box in the first place and behaved like the three wise monkeys when it came to acknowledging the effect of the fast suits: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Truth, though, is at the opposite end of the spectrum to evil. And here is truth:

In 2007, Diana, a relatively small, family owned suit company based in Italy, submitted a suit for FINA approval. It included polyurethane panels. The suit was rejected. At the very same time, US and Australian swimmers (among a few others from other nations) were taking the post-Melbourne plunge in a Speedo LZR prototype. Speedo was FINA's suitmaker-partner at the time, it is necessary to note. The new Speed suit shared properties contained in the Diana suit but went even further. The issue was not one of buoyancy. Compression and hi-tech fabric both contributed to enhancing performance and altering the rate at which swimmers responded to challenge and fatigue. No point in going through the properties of the LZR here - they are well documented. 

Round one of questions, however, go to FINA President Mustapha Larfaoui, the man who must take ultimate responsibility for the clumsy handling of the suit affair in 2008. On what grounds was the Diana suit rejected? What changed between that rejection and the acceptance of the Speedo suit less than a year later? Did the international federation simply take the word of the supplier and sponsor on whether the suit made a difference? Why did FINA take the stance that there was no science to support the view that the suit enhanced performance when there was, in fact, an abundance of evidence? Has the federation learned anything from its abdication of duty (by which I mean, how could it be happy to approve a suit that came with "no scientific data" even though the maker and those closest to the development of the suit were screaming from the rooftops 'hey, we've got a live one here')?

As it turned out, Speedo boasts and the measured comments of the likes of Mark Schubert, head coach to the USA, were proved to be spot on: an improvement of around 2% was achieved across the board by swimmers wearing the LZR Racer. At the helm were 43 individual world long-course records and 15 solo world short-course records between February and August. Then there was the Beijing podium: awash with LZR suits. A handful of winners wore something else. Below the surface, it mattered little whether you observed the winner or the swimmer locked out in 9th and 17th: 2% improvement, or at least anything between 1% and 2.6% kept coming back to confirm the "science".

What science, cried FINA on the eve of a world short-course championships that boasted the boss of Speedo (Stephen Rubin, chairman of Pentland, parent company of Speedo) as the head honcho of the event organisation committee. But the storm had already begun and something big hung heavy in the air. On April 5, FINA issued the following statement:

All swimsuit manufacturers are very important partners to FINA, Member Federations, swimmers, coaches and officials, substantially contributing to the growth of our Sport.

Consequently, FINA, in partnership with the manufacturers, implemented the following:

1. Regulations on swimwear approval have been formulated in close co-operation with the manufacturers, whose participation and contribution was essential (available on FINA website www.fina.org);

2. The FINA swimwear approval process has been implemented since 21 November 2005 without any subsequent specific remarks made by the manufacturers on the process;

3. FINA is always willing 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 ‘SPEEDO LZR Racer’, ‘TYR Tracer Light’ or any other swimsuit approved by FINA;

4. On 12 February 2008 (i.e. before any discussion on swimsuit arose), FINA invited all the swimwear manufacturers to participate on a meeting on 12 April 2008 in Manchester (GBR) on the occasion of the 9th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m). The stated purpose of this meeting is to review and update, if considered necessary, the procedure and requirements for swimwear approval;

5. We underline that at FINA competitions, the rule GR 5.6 - “the manufacturers must ensure that the approved new swimsuit will be available for all competitors” - will apply.

The buoyancy issue was a red herring - and the suit was not available to all by Manchester 2008 - nor indeed by Beijing 2008 if you count those who had what Schubert called a "black and white decision - the money or the gold medal". Federations contracted to the likes of Arena and adidas (Russia and Germany) stuck to their guns and contracts, TYR swimmers to theirs, Nike gave its charges choice (and then subsequently withdrew from the swimming market altogether, unprepared to play a relatively small man's game in a massive sportswear market) and some individuals took to the LZR wave, dumping contracts to don the suit that they believed could make the difference. To some extent, the scoreboard told the tale of just what a difference it did make. 

We know what happened in the pool in Manchester. Massive improvements across the board. The championships served as the biggest aquatic laboratory in history. Coaching, tapering, better diets and on and on - all contributed to the latest wave of speed gains. Some tried to call it a perfect storm of all those things plus the suit. In the end, that argument seemed hollow. The gains were just too big, too consistently within a specific improvement band across too many countries and very varied programmes around the world for there not to be one overriding explanation for a significant part of the improvements being witnessed: the suit.

Come the penultimate day of Manchester 2008, FINA met the suit makers and emerged to say: "On the occasion of the 9th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Manchester, FINA held today its planned meeting with the representatives of the swimwear manufacturers. The agenda included the review of the application of the FINA By-laws on approval of equipment in place since 2005. The meeting was also an occasion to receive the manufacturers' suggestions on the process. In regards to the swimwear material, the discussion clarified that there was a broad understanding between the manufacturers and FINA that the rules were not meant and should not be interpreted as limiting the materials to fabrics stricto sensu but that other material could be used, as has already been the case for several years. FINA confirmed that all the swimsuits approved so far are complying with the specifications. It was agreed that the manufacturers will submit to FINA a common proposal for additional criteria and corresponding methods of testing which may be included in the process. FINA will continue co-operating closely with the manufacturers and ensure the integrity and development of sport."

Suit makers were called on to work with an international standards textile association to find common ground in the approval process. To some that sounded not unlike placing the fox in charge of the chicken coop. It is, of course, in the interests of the suit makers to sell suits. The sexier, the faster, the cooler, the more dynamic you make them, the more they sell. Image is money. So is time. The clock in Manchester and Beijing granted Speedo a massive return on its significant investment: big sales figures and vast profits, even before the suit "went public".

The response to Speedo's success included: 

  • a complaint from rival suit makers that forced the meeting with FINA in Manchester
  • a lawsuit filed by TYR, whose boss, former Olympic medallist for the US, Steve Furniss, against USA Swimming, the federation, Mark Schubert and swimmer Erik Vendt (for taking Schubert's advice and knowing his own mind).
  • a ban on the LZR at Canadian Olympic trials and in Italy, where head coach Alberto Castagnetti called the equipment "technological doping"
  • the post-Games withdrawal of Nike from the swimming market (that's the company that ploughed a few millions into efforts led by Cullen Jones to getting minority communities into the water in a way that has lessons for FINA's development programme; not to mention the support given over the years to the likes of Pieter van den Hoogenband and others, including some who had found it impossible to get support by established brands).
  • US colleges takes a hard line: bucking the trend by most of swimming's governing bodies to accept the new high-tech swim suits, the board of directors of College Swimming Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) voted to oppose the NCAA's recent decision not to extend the moratorium it had imposed on the use of these suits in collegiate competition, saying: "It is the position of the board of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America that the moratorium that was in place for the NCAA Championships for 2008 should be sustained. The moratorium prohibited the use of any suit not commercially available prior to January 1, 2008, primarily because the suits were not readily available to all schools and their athletes."
  • USA Swimming bans hi-tech suits for age-groupers at its annual convention in Atlanta. The ban is imposed for 12 and unders.

Now Australian coaches are discussing the issue, there are rumblings of a mood for change within FINA (whose rules look unsustainable given that the most successful national federation - USA - votes to ban a suit and therefore make it unavailable for all, contrary to current FINA policy).

The above is a state-of-play summary of recent history in the life of the latest generation of high-tech suits. The issues now being raised go much deeper. They are likely to have a bearing on the FINA Presidential race - and will certainly feature in the Larfaoui legacy. Part of that is the anti-doping programme and the official response to a damaging scourge. Will the President also be moved to do something about the damaging inconsistency on suits that now prevails? The answer rests in the interests of the various parties involved. Is there a mood for change or for status quo? 

Tomorrow, we look at the argument in support of Speedo and the fast-suit era.