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Suit Week: The Case Against The Suit

Oct 23, 2008  - Craig Lord


Part Four: SwimNews is aware that some who govern the sport, some coaches and some swimmers are unhappy with the extent to which suit technology has changed the pace and nature of swimming in the past year. Today we look at the concerns of those who want to call a halt - not to progress but to the way in which progress is achieved

What do we have on our hands when we look at the latest generation of high-tech suits, the LZR well and truly at the forefront, when it comes to enhanced performance? Two factors are key: speed and endurance. Not only is the pace of progress in the pool faster than it might  have been without the fast suit but it might be said that results, the very finishing order of races, is altered by the new technology. 


  • Enhanced speed far beyond what earlier suits could lay claim to, and the statistics and science to back that up are now to be found in abundance. It takes the form of empirical observations, apocryphal evidence from swimmers, coaches and sports scientists, data from manufacturers and their partners (such as NASA), and overwhelming evidence of similar-sized improvements across a wide range of swimmers of varying standards and from a multitude of varied training programmes. The data calculated by Dr Joel Sager  from  the James Counsilman Swimming Research Centre at Indiana University, is worth singling out. In short (I refer those who want to know more about the methodology to Indiana), he statistically looked at performances in all Beijing events  comparing these from predictions from the Games of 2000, 2004 and 2008 and concluded that there had been a seismic shift in performance in 2008. Mathematically and statistically, he calculated that the standard reached in the 100m freestyle would not normally have been reached for another 16 years. That's not just the leading few: 60 of the all-time top 100 times hail from 2008. The geographical spread (both in terms of nation states and swim programmes/coaching methods and access to facilities, science and all the things that go into making swimmers faster) of improvements within a fairly narrow and significant band of 1.3 to 2.6% is abnormal to say the least. The suit works as Speedo says it does. There is no argument: the suit aids performance, significantly. Lack of scientific proof was offered by FINA as an explanation for why there would be no action taken on the LZR and no challenge to it being allowed before Beijing 2008. That position is no longer valid.
  • A break with the past. Comparison with the recent past was always possible, regardless of technological advances but the pace of progress and the numbers able to keep up with that pace of progress has no precedent in swimming history. The sport is transformed and where once it would have been perfectly possible to compare one generation with the one immediately following it, that is no longer the case. What point is there in comparing Popov with the nine men ahead of him? None. many of those now faster than the Russian sprint Tsar were race contemporaries of his. But the sport in which he raced them then is not the same sport in which they now race in without him. The closest thing you get to that in the past is the introduction of goggles (doping was another cause of generation-busting performance, of course, but that issue is a wholly different one to that at hand here).
  • Improved endurance that some key minds believe is varied depending on the type of body shape of a swimmer (for example, a swimmer of lean, long body type, light in water and naturally predisposed to a great body position in the water, one that helps to enhance endurance may gain little or nothing from the compression factors of a full bodysuit covering and working with legs, hips and stomach - but the heavy-in-upper-thigh type athlete whose natural body position in water is less than optimum, causing him to tire more rapidly in a race might benefit enormously from the fast suit. Beyond the pace of progress, the suit also then alters the natural potential of the athlete and alters the result of the race). The effect on endurance and body position accounts to some extent for those cases, and there are some, where swimmers wearing the LZR had shown little or no progress and wonder why.
  • Fair play. Is the suit helping to decide the result? Yes. Clearly it is. The weight of swimmers who wore LZRs in Beijing is partly responsible for the figures in Speedo's favour when it comes to who wore what when racing in finals and for medals. Some of that may well be down to a question of confidence - the LZR was worn because the swimmer believed that that was the only way to keep up with the pace of progress. Some could not wear the suit - they were contracted to wear something else; some were happy to be so contracted and some, such as Britta Steffen in her adidas number and others in TYR and Arena suits, prospered anyway. But there are too many examples of falling short when it came to those who chose to wear a standard, traditional suit. That even applied to some who wore a Speedo suit just one generation back from the LZR (even Libby Trickett almost failed to make the final of the 100m freestyle with an almost inexplicably slow semi-final effort at a Games where she took the 100m butterfly crown in a fantastic time and produced a 100m freestyle final in her LZR that was truly significantly faster than her performance in the semi. Of all her performances at the Games, Trickett's semi in the 100m free stands out as statistically odd. Reasons beyond the suit, of course, may well have played a part in the terrifically busy schedule of an athlete facing a challenge many would never wish to contemplate, even among the world's fittest athletes. But I watched Trickett's demeanor down in the mixed zone after that 100 free semi. She was exhausted - and the level of fatigue troubled her. If the LZR was insignificant in all of that, then presumably Libby would have been happy to race in that same previous Speedo incarnation in the final. She did no such thing, of course. Very wise, as it turned out.
  • Future imperfect. Is suit technology taking swimming to a place where it ought not to go unless it knows an awful lot more about the science involved? Yes in the following terms (the quote dates back before the Beijing Games):  "I believe that Speedo knows only some of what it has on its hands. This suit is affecting tissue response, it is affection 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." That came from 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. The first applications of that technology are out there - they have ben in military hands for some time now. The science is coming our way.


And so we turn to whether FINA should have approved the LZR in the first place. 

Rule SW 10.7 is what it hangs on beyond any other: "No swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance during as competition (such as webbed gloves, flippers, fins etc.) Goggles may be worn." 

The exception in the rule is significant. If goggles are a device (sight is a naturally-occuring given in the able-bodied athlete, and the goggle helps the swimmer to see), then why is the suit considered not to be a device (Is not nakedness a naturally occuring given? And does the suit not serve to preserve modesty?). In the days when the suit was a little nylon or even lycra number, with legs and arms exposed, then you could argue that to call it a device would be to take the meaning too far. However, given all that we know about the properties of the LZR and indeed many other brands in the stable of latest-generation fast suits, there can be no question whatsoever that the suit plays a significant part in performance. It is, without a doubt, a device. It alters the result. It has a direct impact on a result. it changes a swimmer's performance. It alters body response to fatigue and pain. It is a device.

It also divides the sport into haves and have nots by choice or contract or by wealth and position. Wealth should not be read only to mean wealthy countries. The protagonists who take to the blocks to represent nations of the developing world almost always represent the social elite of their country, as do the representatives who sit at the table of governance. If they did not, they would not have access to pools and passports to the wider world, in many cases. And position should not be read as social status or as meaning the same as wealth. The position of young Emily Seebohm is not the same as that of a rival of similar wealth status and propensity to grow fingernails. A second or so may split the two over 100m in the water but the gulf in suit support could be much, much bigger: Seebohm pops three suits and it costs her not much more that a call to someone who tells her to be more careful and sends three more garments along; the other kid has no contract, so the bill is $1,500. 

Sticking with the rule book, the fast suit has placed swimming on a fault line. Organisations in the US have taken various steps to control the use of the suit. The arguments for doing so are fundamentally sound. They also set precedent of sorts. Legislating for different costume rules for different meets in different countries - when all those meets operate under FINA rules - is unparalleled. We have now entered a phase where people may ask - why restrict a ban to 12 and under. Do the same arguments not apply to a 15-year-old and his parents and programme. From there, it is not hard, then to imagine a scenario in which a 15-year-old sets a world, continental, national senior and championship record that could not count as an age-group record in a world where conditions and categories according to age are attached to legislation of suits.

Such moves also lead to the need to continually ask "What suit was he wearing when he set that time?" in the way that track and field asks "what was the wind speed?". Such things remove simplicity from sport. Swimming can ill-afford to become more complex, to become a sport spotted with asterisks at every turn. If anything, more simplification would help. 

Which leads us to science and progress in sport. F1, some argue, has gone too far. It's all about the car and the team in the pit, far less about the driver these days. Maybe that's true. I couldn't care less. Too complex. Its about machines. It is truly irrelevant to swimming. Gold clubs. Irrelevant. Swimmers don't rely on an external piece of equipment to propel them down the pool. Make that didn't rely on.... Swimming should set swimming suit rules to suit swimming. If the sport benefits from being a "pure, human-determined sport", as some have described it, then a suit that takes its wearer past Popov in his briefs because the suit is made of the right stuff clearly takes swimming away from where it would wish to be. 

Should swimming move towards artificial or technical assistance? Many coaches, having had time to breath post-Beijing, are coming to the conclusion that they really would rather not. Vested interests prevent open discussion in some quarters but the sentiments are not less real. A bias has been introduced into the sport of swimming that was not there prior to 2000 and was not there in a truly significant way before 2008.

That is the case against the continued use of the latest generation of swim suits.

Tomorrow we conclude by considering the possible solutions open to the sport of swimming and those who govern it.