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Suit Week: How Speedo Won The Battle of Beijing

Oct 21, 2008  - Craig Lord

Part Two: the suit maker now owned by Pentland was caught in a pincer movement of its own making and needed a coup. On one side, it appeared to value a foray into the leisure and lifestyle market more than its core product - sport; on the other, the powerful forces of Nike and adidas threatened to steal a march on the famous suit brand

I attended a Speedo annual gathering in Monte Carlo in the wake of the Olympic Games in Athens. Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman were among those on tap to remind us of Speedo's raison d'etre: elite, performance sport.  The same could be said of Amanda Beard and her agent Evan Morgenstein, though Beard was also the cool tool in the move to drum up business in the lucrative leisure and lifestyle markets. Other fine ambassadors for Speedo and swimming, such as Ada Kok, had been in touch to lend weight to the idea that the famous brand was still all about the first five letters of its name, while the setting told of a company's prosperity: a swish Monte Carlo hotel, the same venue at which Prince Albert had hosted his annual Mare Nostrum last-night buffet for the aquatic troops (very worthwhile for him as it turned out - he met Charlene Wittstock one year somewhence back and the rest is history). 

 The presence of quality often highlights the absence of it too. So it was in Monte Carlo that day. Ignorance with a smile, a puff pastry and a glass of wine on the side stood alongside the swimmers, the coaches and the media in the form of well-meaning PR folk who wouldn't know a hand paddle from a shovel or be able to tell a a high elbow from other parts of the aquatic anatomy if their lives depended on it.  That is not to say that some of those people did not do a good job for Speedo, though I can say that some do the suitmaker no credit at all.  Interview opportunities in Monte Carlo were by invitation only (not a great fan of such things, for reasons I'll come to a little later on). No idea who drew up the hot list but here is a taste of one exchange (overheard while waiting my turn):

  • Reporter from a sizable agency: "What strokes do you swim?"
  • Miss Beard: "Mainly breaststroke - I'm Olympic champion in the 200m".
  • Reporter, in an incredulous tone: "Right. So you just swim the one stroke?"
  • Miss Beard, politely: "Breaststroke is my main stroke but I swim all four strokes."
  • Reporter, in doubting tone: "But its just the one stroke you're good at".
  • Miss Beard, winning awards for self-composure: "Well, I'm not as good at some of them but I won Olympic silver on IM."
  • Reporter - blank stare.
  • PR: "IM is all four strokes".
  • Reporter - confused look.
  • Miss Beard: "It's called medley. I came second at the Olympics in the 200m. That's one length each stroke."
  • Reporter: "Right - but breaststroke is what you're really good at."
  • Miss Beard, with the look a mother gives to an errant child: "Yes".

The tale is told not only to amuse. The fact is that the folly reflected Speedo's positioning in the market at the time as much as it did the reporter's failure to do his homework. It seemed that the brand synonymous with fast swimming was more interested in wooing the Bay Watch brigade than the talent on its doorstep (it may be a little churlish to note at this point - though that's not going to stop me - that Rebecca Adlington was born and bred in Speedo's British backyard of Nottingham but was never seen worth a flutter, despite the obvious promise). More often than prudence might have preferred, a gathering of Speedo folk included a fair few who appeared to know so little about the sport of swimming. They were more suited to the world of Bluewater, a large shopping centre east of London that boasts a Speedo shop full of things for...well, for non-swimmers, for those who like to look good round the pool not in it. There may be commercial sense in all of that but at times it felt from a distance more like two worlds colliding that a symbiotic synchronizing  of business models.

All the more so at a time when some powerful luxury liners started to appear on the horizon. adidas (the small a is how the German outfit likes it) was already there but not yet fulfilling its potential in the wake of the Thorpedo that might have launched the Thorspeedo for generations of kids had it not been for the Australian's preference for a tight little black number that heralded the era of compression and doubtless gave someone at Speedo an idea or two. And then came Nike, which decided to take a toe out of its sneaker, dip it into the water and send a chilly ripple the way of those who had long dominated the swimming sportswear market. Add to the mix the threat from Arena, long the maker of some very cool sportswear indeed, TYR, steadily building popularity on the deck, and Diana, of Italy, a family affair that at one stage boasted national contracts with Britain, Poland and Italy and was the preferred suit of the likes of Adlington and others for a while.

Nothing like competition to stir the cells of bean-counters, marketeers and merchandisers. It's the same in the pool. How to stay ahead? Do something that your competitor is not doing or cannot do. That theme is as true on the cutting floor of Speedo's workshops as it is in the water.  The most famous swimming brand of the past century found the perfect answer: find a suit that will blow the opposition out of the water. Link up with partners that will not only catch the eye of headline writers but carry technological, cutting-edge credence with them. The likes of NASA, for example. A suit that will win hearts and minds and pockets all at the same time. A suit that would become so popular and command so many headlines that no-one in their right mind would wish to reject it. An innovation that would take the sport of swimming into a new era by enhancing performance beyond anything we had ever seen before. 

Some, oddly, still argue that the LZR Racer did no such thing. There is no science, some said, and still say. Baloney. "You must be in Speedo's pocket" to keep making claims of 2% advantage etc etc, scoffed David Sparkes, chief exec of British Swimming. Not I, I reminded him - it is your name on the contract with Speedo, not mine. Mr Sparkes was not alone. The official message was: stop making a fuss, stop advertising the amazing properties of this suit, shut up with this technology thing, tell people it's still the swimmer that counts, tell everyone about the hard work and cutting edge science in training that is responsible for all the progress we were supposed to cheer along at every stroke. Those who spoke of the suit's impact were labeled as Luddites and perceived, falsely, as wanting to detract from the excellent work of coaches, swimmers, sports scientists and others. 

It is truly amazing to see nine men race inside the time (some well inside it) in which Alex Popov held the world 50m freestyle record at the end of  2007. Nine men inside a world record within a six-month period. Is there anyone out there who can point me in the direction of such a pattern in the pool before? Restrict your search to the modern era. I find nothing, and that's with more than 30 years of world rankings at my fingertips, courtesy of Nick Thierry. That surging tidal wave of sprint progress was almost all achieved since February 2008. Perfect storm of events? Not at all. The suit? You bet. Some dubious efforts in the mix? Absolutely. Uncomfortable - but true. Those who need to recall the heady days of Beijing and the progress seen across the board can do so here: of particular interest to sceptics will be the notes on how the advent of new technology affected just about the whole world (making for status quo in many events - see the 4x200m free example, for example) and the numbers of new entries in the all-time top 100 since February 2008. The surge is a complete aberration, a flash flood if ever there was one.  Take this snapshot as just one of many examples: men's 100m freestyle - every one of the all-time top 15 times ever were clocked since February this year (more than unusual); 60 of the all-time 100 best efforts have been clocked since February, 2008. Way more than unusual, Thierry's well-kept history of world rankings proves. No questions. No doubts. Full stop.

So, there is no doubt about it: Speedo's claims for its suit are correct. The LZR is an amazing garment, a fabulous technological breakthrough. One to be celebrated? We'll turn to that complex issue, and where vested interests lie, later in the week. For now, it should be said that Speedo deserves a large pat on the back. It got almost everything right: it read the swimmer, it read the coach, it read the federations and their bank balances, it read the mood and it invested its money. Speedo is a commercial outfit. Like banks and other institutions that survive on money, Its search for profitability can only be curbed by the rules under which it must operate. Speedo does not set the rules but it does invest time and money in the rule makers, of course. That's a standard business model. It worked a treat for Speedo and Pentland and Mr Rubin at the helm of his company and the organising of the world short-course championships in Manchester that launched the LZR on the competitive global market. 

The profits, the sales figures (some of that can be found on Speedo's website), the records and medals speak for themselves. The sponsorship deal with the federation? Will it grow? How big was it? For some reason, neither parties to such deals like to provide details to the wider world (commercial sensitivity, and all that. Best keep the great unwashed of swimming in the dark too. Knowledge is power). The publicity generated for swimming, the money that followed was all to the good. A podium place for swimming; immortality for Michael Phelps; $1m for Mikey, a link to a sporting God for Speedo - and then all that money for a foundation for kids. Speedo has long invested in swimming. At club level and beyond. It is now engaged in innovative work with parents and workshops and media. Much of what it does is good news for the sport.

Gold for Speedo. 

So what is there not to like about all of this?

We go back to the question of who sets the rules for a world in which Speedo prospers. Where there is a winner, there are losers. And the more Speedo prospers, the more powerful a player it becomes. One consequence of its success is the exit of Nike from the water. Another is schism in the sport: a division of who can and who cannot wear a particular kind of suit, and when a certain type of suit may be worn and when it may not be worn. The pioneer women of the 1912 Olympic Games and the generation after them may be the last to have experienced such a world - but then it was FINA who made the rules to say what was in and what was out. Now, national federations, such as the USA, have started to set the agenda. What happens in the USA, and possibly Australia, may well influence FINA's next step in the suit debate. There are those close to all of this who say "what debate". There is nothing to discuss and what there is to be said can be said behind closed doors.

Why? Vested interests - and we'll look at those tomorrow.