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Suit Week: Vested Interests

Oct 22, 2008  - Craig Lord

Part Three: Many are the stakeholders in the Speedo suit. Today we look at some of the key players and the role they have played in the journey towards schism in the sport

Vested interests. We all have them. They can be a positive force, they can drive innovation and progress. The best of teams share vested interests. So do rivals. Some vested interests, however, can lead individuals and large groups of people to pursue short-term gains at the risk of long-term damage. They can lead to weakness of position. It remains to be seen whether the widespread acceptance of the latest generation of fast-suit technology will damage swimming. Certainly, some good has come of it, some harm too. It is also clear that long-term implications are already starting to emerge from the post-February 2008/post-Beijing ripples now heading out across the swimming world from the coaching and colleges communities in the United States.

There is an obstacle to open debate: in the course of looking at the issues, with balance in mind, many hundreds of e-mails have crossed my path, some from those adamantly opposed to the LZR-style technology and some adamantly in favour of it. In the midst of those mails are secondary mentions of a move to silence criticism, to silence debate, to keep discussion under wraps, to deal with this in a "modern way" out of the public eye. There is nothing modern about secrecy. It's as old as the hills. It is just as capable of producing darkness today as it was in the Dark Ages, just as capable of causing the kind of harm that we saw in the 1970s and 1980s to the ruination of generations of swimmers. Silence may not be intended as a weapon. It is often used defensively, or through fear. For whatever the reason, the perception and the eventual consequence of secrecy and back-room handling may lead to the same dark place. 

We have seen this mood for silence and secrecy before in swimming - and vast damage was done and no apology was ever given by those who might have apologised. Doping was the issue in the day of the likes of Shirley Babashoff and the class of 1976 through to 1989. Did anyone of the ilk of Babashoff ever get an apology from a federation, international, continental or national by way of an acknowledgment that lack of vigilance and good governance cost them their rightful place in sports history? No (though I believe the US Olympic Committee did actually say sorry to Surly Shirley, who if she was surly was so for very good reason). Of course, the LZR Racer, despite being labelled technological doping, is not doping and we must be clear to make that distinction lest we lessen the arguments over both issues. But what might be termed the Babashoff Principle ought to be applied to those whose instincts, under more liberal moments in their life, would favour freedom of speech and openness of debate beyond the ridiculous "the suit is fantastic and we ought to keep it, great for the sport, well done Speedo - but the time on the clock is all about the swimmer and the coach and the sports science and everything that doesn't mention the suit".

Against a backdrop of the frenetic pace of opinions being passed in private but relative silence in public, today we consider the vested interests of various parties to the progress in the pool at a time when performances have so clearly been enhanced to a significant degree by suit technology. Before we consider the protagonists, a quick reference to the lack of financial figures or information on who handed what to whom at what stage in the game: no federation, no athlete, no coach, no suit maker has ever revealed the true terms of the contracts they have entered into with Speedo in these LZR terms. Understandable - to a degree. But we know that vested interest is alive and well in all of those relationships - in different forms:

SPEEDO: as we discussed yesterday, the suit maker played a blinder. At least 9 out of 10 on all counts and 10 out of 10 when it comes down to the success of its company, dominance of the swim suit market and Speedo's role as the brand that is synonymous with swimming in household-name terms beyond the sport across the world of sport. Its interests are clear, they are commercial, and swimming benefits from a great deal of what Speedo is about in the bargain. Great news. 

So what's the problem?: for the most part, none, in pure Speedo terms. However, there are those who believe, sincerely (and I am among them) that it is unhealthy for a sponsor, a major commercial operator in the swimming equipment market who sits at a table and has to negotiate contracts with FINA, national federations, individual swimmers and coaches in the face of bids from rivals companies to then be engaged in taking the helm of the organisation of a world championship, and specifically a world championship that provided a comparatively massive public and global platform for the latest gadget and trick to be pulled from its commercial hat. There were doubtless contracts and boundaries in place to safeguard integrity all round (at least I hope so for the sake of all parties concerned) - but in business, politics, love, war and much else, perception is often nine tenths of the law. No-one is suggesting or has suggested that foul play was at work. But when Stephen Rubin sat at a table with representatives from FINA, British Swimming and fellow Speedo folk to discuss Manchester 2008, did no-one in the room think 'right, so, is this a meeting with Speedo, one of the partners to the event and major sponsor of both tiers of governing body, or are we meeting an independent unit whose only vested interest is honouring a contract to make Manchester 2008 a fantastic and successful championship on all levels? Perhaps they did. Perhaps they thought 'it doesn't matter - we're all from the same family with the same goal anyway'? That last little nugget is the key: do these parties share the same goal? Ultimately, I think not. Yes, they all want swimming to be a great show, put bums on seats and turn a healthy profit or at least a good return on the money invested. Yes, they all want to further the cause of aquatic sports. 

But there are other factors: 1. Speedo wanted to crush the opposition in their market - and you might now say that they did, given that Nike, although of its own volition, walked away from the water, possibly never to return, never to invest in swimming again, never to provide a source of healthy competition and potential sponsorship for many, from the likes of Hoogie and Jones down to the kids from Harlem and its parallels around the world (surely not what an international federation committed to putting a pool and a swim programme in the backyard of every corner of the globe would want; not what a presidency that relies on the votes of many who represent minorities and developing nations would want to see); 2. Speedo wanted, understandably, to boast of its eureka moment - the stats, the science, the progress that came to pass as a result (not so the folk from the federations, who told us 'there is no science - sod off and shut up).

Those are called conflicts of interest. Speedo played a smart game. It set the agenda for Manchester 2008, Rubin and team did a fine job both for Manchester and in terms of getting a healthy return on its investment in the LZR Racer. They also ensured that they had one of their own team - former swimmer James Hickman - not only hosting the show, on deck and on camera, but then also on the box beamed to the world in a bodysuit as a former five-time world short-course champion who endorsed the LZR at every opportunity he could. You can't blame Speedo or young James for that. They were in control. Their message was getting out there - loud and clear and sometimes a tad too brashly. Their message was almost exactly opposite to what FINA president Mustapha Larfaoui was telling the media at a press conference along the corridor from the VIP suit where Rubin and Co sat smiling as they entertained their guests. 

FINA and its national federations, such as hosts Britain, it seemed, had not noticed the news running on the NASA website no less, or if they had, they appeared not to believe a word that was being said by experts who had spent their lives monitoring and measuring in wind tunnels that provide data upon which lives depend - the Space Programme. Take aerospace engineer Steve Wilkinson. He's based at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Been there for 30 years. Tons of experience. Not a man of whom you'd say: what the hell would he know about drag and resistance. He tested some 60 different fabrics in the work carried out to find the best product for the LZR. "This is a fundamental research facility," says Wilkinson in a NASA statement. "What we look at are concepts for reducing drag on otherwise smooth surfaces. This is more directed toward fundamental physics … the interactions between the flow and the surface." Warnaco Inc., the US licensee of the Speedo swimwear brand, approached NASA Langley to test the fabric samples because NASA Langley has researched drag reduction for aircraft and even boats for decades. "We evaluated the surface roughness effects of nearly 60 fabrics or patterns in one of our small low speed wind tunnels," says Wilkinson. "We were assessing which fabrics and weaves had the lowest drag. The tests have generally shown the smoother the fabric, the lower the drag."

Wilkinson adds: "Just like reducing drag helps planes fly more efficiently, reducing drag helps swimmers go faster. Studies indicate viscous drag or skin friction is almost one-third of the total restraining force on a swimmer. Wind tunnel tests measure the drag on the surface of the fabrics. The fabric comes in the form of fabric tubes, a small diameter fabric tube. We pull that over our smooth flat model, which is an aluminum plate underneath. We prepare the edges so they're straight and square with no protruding corners or edges to interfere with the drag on the surface." NASA explains: The plate goes into the small wind tunnel test section. With a flip of a switch, air flows over it. Wilkinson runs the tunnel through a number of wind speeds and, with the help of sensors, measures drag on the surface. He records the data and then sends it on to Speedo researchers. Speedo's research and development team, Aqualab, takes the results and uses them to help create advanced "space-age" swimsuit designs.

Is there a cat in hell's chance that all of that came to pass without the likelihood of learning, the likelihood of scientific data emerging, scientific data that would provide the answer to producing a "fast suit", a suit that would do something that no other ever had? Do you think there could be a tenth life for that cat? No, me neither. But the federations don't believe a word of it, apparently. Which puts them in conflict with their own sponsor and a partner that in the past year has looked more like puppet master.

FINA: the vested interest that FINA shares with Speedo is the promotion and growth of aquatic sports. FINA is a non-profit organisation. What comes in has to go out. A great deal comes in - and a great deal goes out. These days, as Julio Maglione, the Treasurer and 2009 Presidential candidate, noted recently, more than $7 million is handed out to athletes in prizes. We don't learn, of course, what the bill was for having the world of FINA and his wife accommodated in luxurious settings after a business-class ticket to Melbourne, the tourist tours, the free gifts and so on and so forth. Transparency would suggest that such details out to be revealed too when boasting of what athletes now have access to. Nonetheless, aquatic sports are on their way up the financial ladder. A long way to go, perhaps, but a world away from the sport left behind in the 1990s, let alone the 1970s when world championships were born - and a universe away from the amateur rules put in place by the founding fathers of FINA back in the pioneering period of 1908 to 1948. FINA has done much to keep swimming afloat and spread the word. Too much, in some areas, you might say - but the blooming of events and a calendar Picasso might have etched in his wilder moments are issues apart. Is FINA right to engage with Speedo? Absolutely. Is it right to be the guardian of suit approval? Absolutely. 

So what's the problem? Well, the sudden abdication of duty for one. Did the money blind the federation to its own good traditions and precedents? When the US started placing three wave-breaker lane ropes down a single lane in the pool in domestic competition, it was told by FINA to desist. Why? Because few, if any, other countries could possibly afford to run programmes where the standard eight-lane competition required 21 of what were then relatively expensive lane ropes. That was the argument. It was a good one. Lane-rope makers turned their attentions to making the one buoy more efficient and today the single lane line is a small miracle when compared to the rope that separated the pack from Schollander's waves. 

The cost of the suit - $500 might stretch to one meet, perhaps a few races more, perhaps a few less if you're as unlucky as young Emily Seebohm, a teenager with coloured claws and a tendency to pop her nail through a few suits in a session. Expensive game this swimming lark. 

But this time round, FINA appeared not to care what the suit would cost and whether the wider world could afford it. There was, it seems, never any question that approval would be given to the latest incarnation from the Speedo stable, even though a suit with some of the same material and made by Diana earlier the same year got a distinct thumbs down. There was no discussion when it came to Speedo's suit, or at least there are no minutes showing healthy debate at Bureau or indeed Congress. Having just penned the FINA history section of Aquatics 1908 - 2008, I can tell you that there were plenty of fascinating and healthy exchanges of opinions down the years on issues that today we might consider to be much lesser topics than the fast suit. But not in 2007 and 2008. The tick was placed in the Speedo box faster than Mr Sullivan can get from block to blast off in a new era of sprinting. Some may argue with that. They will tell you that a considered process took place. Well, if so, why was the message from NASA not considered? Did no-one ask: what exactly have we got on our hands here - what will it do for performance - where will it take the sport - is it safe for kids, for masters on blood pressure pills (yes, they're all out there and swimming under the FINA banner)? I suspect that some did consider those questions. But the answer that rang in their ears was: wow, every world record broken - Manchester 2008, Beijing 2008, here we come, let the good times roll!

The temptation, the rationale, the logic of it all. In the beam of a super trouper, easy to see it all. But now for the longer term, good gentlemen of somewhat shoddy governance on this issue. The future is here. It is one in which Nike has sloped off in its sneakers, one in which TYR sees fit to sue the most powerful FINA member in the world, one in which US coaches and colleges have voted to ban the LZR and other high-tech suits under certain circumstances, making a mockery of the spirit of the FINA rule that holds that all approved suits must be available to all swimmers. Schism has resulted. So has a feeling that President Larfaoui in his oversight has overseen a shift in the perception of FINA as a hard but fair negotiator to a partner that might be a pushover if the price is right. Perceptions grow teeth sometimes.

FINA now faces some difficult choices. Tell Speedo to put the toy that the federation approved back in its box? Some believe that could happen. Many believe it more likely to see Johnny Weissmuller make a comeback (sorry Johnny up there in the heavenly pond). Perhaps FINA will take the hard line on performance-enhancing suits for youngsters and insists on rolling back the fabric for youth events. That would be a compromise some could live with. But it will not resolve some of the issues that we will consider tomorrow when we look at where the fast suit has taken the sport and why that could be a problem. Perhaps FINA will do nothing, sit on its hands and profess that all is well. The consequences of that are for further conflict in rules that govern international and national swimming, a trend that FINA fought against strongly for many a long year when it came to substantive issues (the archive of FINA minutes are littered with examples: amateur rules; which nations you could and could not race against; what words could and could not be used by nations when they hosted events at which other nations were invited; how much swimmers could accept for foreign tours; and latterly, what swimmers are obliged to wear on their chests and on their caps, regardless of whether that may or may not be in complete and damaging conflict with the benefits of private sponsorship). The consequence of doing nothing is also to send the signal that all innovation that brings in the right kind of money and image is acceptable as long as the thing that floats the federation is not seen to float itself. Buoyancy, as we've noted and will do so again tomorrow, is a red herring. Doing nothing will leave FINA in need of finding an explanation for the majority of its voting members ahead of the 2009 Presidential election: how to tell nations that barely boast a pool fit to sustain an elite training programme, let alone a population of swimmers that not only needs to learn to swim before considering the aquatic space age but can ill afford a suit that costs more than the average monthly wage (far more in many cases). If you take a budget the size of Seebohm's needs, change monthly to yearly. The sums just do not add up for a federation that stands on a foundation of "inclusivity" not exclusivity. But that leads us to the next protagonist.

NATIONAL FEDERATIONS - let's go straight to some potential problems: beyond the ignorant denial that the suit has had an impact on performance and the loss of confidence in certain individuals who aspire to be among the elders of FINA in the years to come, we have now moved deeper into the realm of a sport divided into haves and have nots. That, of course, does not run counter to the trend of the biggest players in world sport (not counting the US pro sports, where influence is restricted to a few domestic markets regardless of the vast sums  swilling about): F1, soccer, golf, tennis, etc, all elitist to varying degrees at varying levels. So perhaps FINA culture is about to turn. Perhaps the exclusive model is the right one after all. Who wants to see a swimmer from the developing world lolling up the pool in a bodysuit anyway - the argument might go. Perhaps its time to have an A World Championships, that would be pure and true to its name in another context, that of boasting the best 30 in the world in every event, regardless of where they came from. Perhaps it is time for the B World Champs for all the rest. There is political trouble ahead for federations who stay silent as the sport positions itself on a fault line.

The USA and Australia, among others, are far more powerful players, both in the pool and in the bank, than most FINA members. Some of those who hold high office and represent those nations at FINA have more swimming knowledge and business experience in their little fingers than the combined weight of continental cliques. Perhaps those weightier folk ought to have a bigger say in how things are run. Perhaps the ruling Bureau should be composed only of nations that boast a top 20 position in world waters. A model that will delight many but be frowned on from a great height by many more within the FINA family. Horror of horrors, the cry will go up. But giving more power to the powerful makes sense in  a world where you can no longer afford to be run by people who feel it reasonable to ignore what the combined brains of NASA have to say about the suit your swimmers are wearing. The next Bureau meeting of FINA is one at which the international federation needs to consider such issues carefully before moving the next piece on the board. 

Those Bureau members and the wider church of the Congress are, of course, the very same people as those running the national federations that make up FINA membership. They are the same people who run LEN and other continental bodies, in many instances. The same arguments listed for FINA apply to its membership. The political battle, bargaining and bartering now raging behind the scenes in the build-up to the 2009 FINA election is unseemly (and there will be more on that in the weeks and months to come) and the puffed up pageant of people hungry for power has drained attention and energy away from the important issues of the day. Time to get back to serving swimming not helping yourself to a free ticket around the world and into the cosy corridors of the IOC realm. Time to ask the question: why is a suit ok for the best 300 in the world across all events, for masters, for the public, but cannot be worn by a 12-year-old to gain an advantage over a rival in youth waters? Surely that was the basis of the Speedo suit: to gain an advantage. 

Is the issue cost alone? In which case, ban the suit for the developing world, for they can afford it no better than the average parent in middle England. The lines are blurred, the arguments for and against divisions just as problematic as each other. But none of these issues were raised by federations before the launch of the LZR suit. The reason why the US has acted is in the interests of the development of talent in its country. Many a Michael Phelps might head to the boxing ring or the basketball court or elsewhere, anywhere but the pool if the cost is going to mean a mortgage for his parents. The cut off is 12. Why 12? Something to do with the size the suits come in, probably. If size is the issue, then the age is arbitrary. If cost is the issue, then surely many of the financially challenged will be so at  12, 14, 16 and 18. It is not unusual to have swimmers of that age range never make a national team on their way to a breakthrough at 19 to 23. Take Rebecca Adlington. At 17, she was deemed worthy of lottery funding in the UK. At 19 she is a double Olympic champion and is about to double her lottery income. Not a suit maker in sight - and from 12 to 17 it came down to mum and dad, Steve and Kay. That is the standard model in countries where parents make the sacrifice because they can and want to and work for it. Federations rely on it. So do suit makers. So do coaches.

COACHES AND SWIMMERS: their vested interests are simple. Which coach and swimmer (in a sport where mum and dad are the paymasters) asked to take part in suit testing for Speedo and NASA in exchange for support and a closet of free bodysuits that are going to cost the arms and legs they're covering is going to say "er, no thanks, I'll pass this time". Speedo is liked. Why wouldn't it be. It hands out suits that the kids love to wear, it makes great gear, has done for many a long year. 

So what's the problem? Well, like the federations, many coaches and swimmers want it both ways and knowing that, they prefer to follow the creed of silence. On the one hand they are happy to say: this suit is the best thing that ever happened in the pool, I feel fantastic, its like swimming downhill, I feel like rocket man in this suit ... etc, etc, etc; on the other they say, 'come on, its not about the suit, its about the swimmer in it - ok the suit is good but this world record, that national record, this pb and that amazing swim was down to us, coach and charge. Speak in other terms and you get e-mails telling you you must hate swimmers and coaches. In which case I'd have to hate my dad and myself for starters. The notion is ludicrously stupid. Coaches and swimmers who wore the LZR this year were placed between a rock and a hard place when it came to speaking about their suit and themselves this year. They were, in effect, forced to contradict themselves. Take a peek at the databases of the world media and seek out quotes galore from a range of Olympic finalists. One moment the suit is everything; the next, it was all down to the beef in the broth and the brain behind the block. The truth was somewhere in the middle but few were prepared to admit it.

And the future that will surely prove the point is just around the corner: Rome 2009. If the average 2% improvement in large numbers of swims was down to swimmer and coach, barring the odd 0.2 of a percent for the suit, as some would have it, then we will see the same in Rome next summer, or at least another leap. I mean, take the 50 and 100m free for men: contrast Melbourne 2007 with Beijing 2008, throw the curve forward and thrill at the prospect of sprinters in Rome. Can the clock handle it? Yes, because there will be no advance in a six-month period next year as was witnessed in the six months leading up to Beijing after the launch of the LZR.

THE MEDIA: I add this one only to make the media position clear to those federation folk who are either happy to play the fool for reasons best known to themselves or who labour under the misapprehension that the media has an interest in boosting Speedo sales. Niche independent publications such as SwimNews, Swimming World Magazine and so forth, benefit from Speedo and other players in a varied commercial swimming market by way of advertising revenue. I do not have access to the specific ad rates of various publications. I know the approximate range from niche player to large national newspaper. There is a gulf in the rates, of course. I can confirm that the rates paid to niche players will not fund the kind of corporate-Jaguar, business and first-class flights and five-star-hotel-lifestyle enjoyed by some federation folk. Far from it. Beyond the niche players in the media, agencies, national newspapers and independent sports magazines have no vested interest in Speedo and have nothing to gain or lose from taking a pro, anti or neutral stance on the state of suits in swimming.

There is one corner of the media world where vested interests are alive and kicking, of course: the burgeoning message-control market of federation "news services". We have seen USA Swimming move into the media market through a connection with a news and features website. Caution is urged - but in some ways I find that less troubling than national federations who think media means PR. It doesn't, it shouldn't, it will backfire. Best avoided. The best thing federations can do is to run an orderly, professional house, provide clear and clean information to the media, provide a power socket and a desk, an internet connection and a clear view over the end of the pool, ensure easy access to swimmers and coaches. And above all - tell the truth and be as open as you possibly can. Politics and poor understanding of the media get in the way and in a tight market cause some fairly sizeable media organisations to turn away from swimming beyond the two biggest moments of the sport: Olympic Games and World long-course Championships. There are international agencies who have made it a policy not to cover short-course swimming. For them its like Emporio Armani. The real deal is down the road where Giorgio's gates are opened by a buzzer and a butler escorts you and your hat boxes back to the Bentley.

Quality will out. Which is why Speedo did so well in getting its message across. In contrast to the contradictions of swimmers and coaches and the outright attempts by some in federationhood to make the LZR sound like something grandma whipped up with her needles the night before the launch, Speedo's campaign was a thing of brilliance. Some were blinded by it. The media was blinded, said some in blazers. They can be forgiven: the light was so strong that they didn't notice that it was their very own image dancing there in the mirror to Speedo's tune.

SPEEDO's RIVALS: a note on a group of companies who have been painted as having a vested interest in catching up with Speedo's technology. Some of them got left behind because they were under the impression that they had reached a line beyond which approval would not be granted. Approval was granted - to one of FINA's major partners. To Speedo. Should it have been? We consider that issue tomorrow. 

In conclusion, a thought on the theory of vested interest. It is a communication theory that seeks to explain how influence impacts behaviour. It is a complex theory that involves ego, salience, certainty, stakeholder status, immediacy and self-efficacy. The latter is significant. Vested interest is often perceived as something that emboldens, strengthens. But efficacy is where weakness can set in and is what FINA and others need to watch for. Take the fifth member of a relay. The reserve. He so much wants that place. But there is a risk that in swimming in the heats, his status as fifth best will leave the team a touch shy of qualification. He will be blamed. All hangs on him. The coach gives him a choice. If the swimmer truly believes he can make a difference, he will go for it, and will often succeed. Where there is doubt, the risk of failure grows. Does FINA have doubts on the suit? Do federations and coaches have doubts on the suit? The answer, judging by the exchanges of e-mails I have witnessed (and you can guarantee that's not the half of it) is that they do. The removal of doubt requires knowledge about the things that concern people about the issue at hand. And that's what we'll look at tomorrow.