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Suit Week: Solutions

Oct 24, 2008  - Craig Lord


Part Five - Swimming is treading water over a fault line on the issue of suits. The sport reached a watershed this year with the adoption and approval of technology that has turned the suit into a performance-enhancing device. Many are unhappy. What can the sport do about it?

Hindsight. It often has a negative overtone (as in, 'told you so'). It needn't. Sometimes it is a valuable tool with which to put right what was wrong and in that spirit, the blame culture can be stifled and people can move on in a happier environment. A decision taken in haste is often repented at leisure. It need't be so. If swimming, as a global sport (as opposed to the interests of individuals and commercial outfits), believes that it has taken a step down a dangerous alleyway, there is nothing but the will and understanding of those who guide and govern to prevent the sport from ducking back out of that alleyway and finding a different way. 

Why use the word dangerous? This is just about a swim suit, surely? Well, no, not really. It is about the introduction for the first time of a suit that is no longer just something a swimmer wears, something that is water-friendly, modern, something to feel good and look good in while preserving modesty. The latest generation of body suits (and one in particular led the way, as we know, but will doubtless be copied) - specifically because of the form they take and the material/fast fabric/high-tech fibre they are made of and the effect those have on the human body and possibly even the signals sent to the brain when an athlete is performing under stress - constitute a performance-enhancing device. That is against FINA rules, in letter and spirit. Below we set out a range of options for those who have power vested in them to decide the direction of the sport of swimming, including simply changing the rules (not a wise move, in my opinion).

The decision to approve the suit was taken with good intentions, was taken in the spirit of "what's best for swimming", with a rider that the decision-makers of today almost always have their eye on the money. Understandable: big prize money and top-flight tickets and hotels around the world cost a lot of money, as does paying for all those who need the support to get to events in the first place. If you want to keep the circus on the road, you have to be able to cover the high costs of doing so. 

But in taking that hasty decision to approve for use technology that the guardians (among others) of the sport did not fully understand at the time, and then celebrating a record-breaking year of record breaking (the numbers are one thing - world, continental and national, the percentage of progress is another, and no less telling), the future, the long-term implications were overlooked. Hindsight has now allowed us to digest all that has come to pass since the launch of the Speedo LZR back in February. There is no more denying that the suit enhances performance significantly, there is no more saying that the science and evidence does not exist - but there is yet time to address the urgent question of what properties the compression suits of the age possess and where that is leading the sport of swimming ... and then doing something about it.

The LZR is not the end of it, if you ask research experts in relevant technologies. Resistance through water and discussions of drag have long been the main topics associated with suits and their usefulness to an athlete's performance. What has not reached the ken of many but is no less significant - indeed it may well be the most significant thing about the LZR - is the possibility that the suit is altering body response and function. The end result is written in the Speedo literature: reduces fatigue, compression factors ... that prevent muscle oscillation ... etc. Some experts believe that not even Speedo realised what it had on its hands when the suit was being put together. If you think testing suits is a tricky science, imagine what it would be like to test equipment in terms of what responses are generated under certain conditions in human beings. 

Those experts in technologies of the future suggest that the LZR is in its technological infancy. It could be better still - perhaps even much better (or worse, depending on your point of view). But is swimming truly happy to go further down a road of dressing its athletes in technology that could prove almost impossible to define in terms of its effect on performance - and indeed the different effects from human to human depending on body type and much else. In such a world, the technology would play an ever-growing role in deciding results, not just times but finishing order. Beyond doping and the hand of a god or nature that may play an unquantifiable role in determining who has a good day and who has a bad day come the big race, there is nothing that could shape the sport with such a heavy hand as technology. Caveat emptor.

A rewriting of rules would certainly not suffice. Advances in engineering and design respect no rules and if if they did the pace of progress would require the rules to be written more regularly than the good governance of swimming could tolerate. The answer is skin deep. Skin, we all have it. It is the common denominator. If you make as much of it have contact with the water as possible, you have the purest of results possible in terms of man's interaction with water. Nature provides the answer to swimming's dilemma - not technology and the testing of it.


We started this mini-series on the premise that blame was not an aim. Resolution was. The only thing that is in swimming's interest is to find a solution to a problem that has divided the sport in an unhelpful way and led it down a path that crosses a potential minefield for the future of aquatic sports governance.

The men and women who decide the direction of aquatic sports hail from many different countries and many different backgrounds, both personal and professional. Bad decisions have been taken. But there is hope. We are not dealing with rogues and bad people out to make a fast buck. For the most part we are dealing with people who come into the sport of swimming for the right reasons: the advancement and good governance of the sport. It is in that spirit that the following solutions to the suit debate are offered as an aid to those who must consider this issue soon and will need as much presence of mind and clarity as is possible. 

1. Do nothing and let the suit makers and the international fabric association they are now supposedly working together with decide where limits rest in suit technology. 

Verdict: Not a happy state of affairs - a solution that would shake the good foundations on which FINA was formed. It would represent a major abdication of duty by those charged with guardianship of international swimming. It would leave federations and other organisations responsible for governing domestic swimming free and even duty bound to go further down the road to setting their own rules on who can wear what and when. That would fly in the face of the raison d'etre of FINA. It would fly in the face of good governance, which should come from the top downwards after  rational, educated and reasonable debate in the multi-faith church that makes up the global swimming family.

2. Enter a long drawn out process for testing of suits, fabrics, materials. 

Verdict: no rules and testing criteria will manage to keep up with and cope with technological changes that will make the LZR look like Fanny Durack's line of swim wear

3. Change the rule to a wording that specifically allows suits that enhance performance

Verdict: the sport of swimming is changed forever - for the worse, in the opinion of many who love to engage in and watch and write about and govern swimming  

4. Return the sport to a position where the suit has minimal impact. To do that requires a move back to skin. The more of it the better. Shorts for men and shorts up to shoulder straps should be the limit when it comes to allowable suit wear. 

Verdict: skin is the answer. The relative purity of the sport that was enjoyed for so long would be restored. There would be no need for asterisks and sub clauses, footnotes and small print on the result sheets, live reports and history books of the sport of swimming. Right now, swimming is heading into a jungle of asterisks and the need for complex explanations as to who swam in what and when. Swimming, a sport hard enough to sell to a mass market in most of the world, should steer clear of that. A world of sub-clauses would surely be unwelcome to the likes of those who have got past Egerszegi, Popov and Van den Hoogenband in the past year. But it would be fair, whether the current generation in the sport like it or not.

As simple and pure as you can make it - that is the key to accessibility. Such a return to skin would in no way affect the thrill of the sport, in no way detract from anything swimmers and coaches are achieving. If anything it would enhance them. It is win, win for all. Not even Speedo and others would lose: they would still make great suits and gear, just as they have done for so long - and the world would buy them. And federations would still get their money too.

The timing of any discussions and decisions that may be made over the northern winter ahead of us are critical. The sport needs a firm outlook and a position that all can live with, a position that is confident enough to ensure that swimming does not get caught out to the detriment of many as was the case this year, by March next year at the latest. In time for Rome 2009. In time for Congress. 

Whatever the sport decides over the northern winter ahead, it should come up with a framework that means that we never again see a summer - and Olympic summer at that - like we have just seen. I'm not talking about the thrill of the races, the records and the happiness of all those who did a great job. I'm talking about the contracts that were shredded, the big players and sponsors that walked away from swimming because they assumed that the game had been fixed and they would be unable to operate in a fair-play environment, I'm talking about the ludicrous denial that the suit enhanced performance and the absolute ignorance about what lies just around the corner in terms of the next generation of technology that can be applied to swimsuits. And it surely will be applied if the way in which the LZR situation was handled is the shape of things to come for swimming.

Vote for skin.