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FINA To Host Think Tank On Suits

Nov 16, 2008  - Craig Lord

FINA will host a World Think Tank on suits in February in response to the debate raging in the sport over the impact of technology on performances as highlighted in SwimNews Suit Week last month. The FINA forum would "certainly" lead to rule changes to take account of "modern developments in the sport" and help to create a framework in which it was "sensible for the sport" to operate, said Cornel Marculescu, Executive Director of FINA.

He told SwimNews that it had been a "busy year". It was now "time to breathe, to review all issues with the suits in the sport". There could be "no doubt", he noted, that the latest generation of bodysuits enhance performance to one degree or another. "Now we know there is something there, for sure - we need to know what and where is the limit," he said. His is the first official acceptance given without hesitation or fear that it was not only the surface image of the sport that had changed. It was not good for swimming, he acknowledged, that a player such as Nike had decided to walk away from the pool.

FINA lawyers have studied the details of the five articles that made up Suit Week here on SwimNews and would look at submissions and information from a variety of sources in the spirit of leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to come up with the right framework on suits and then express that framework in the right language in any necessary rewriting of rules. The timing of the think tank gives the sport a moment to reflect on what has happened in the past year and consider where technology could lead it in the near future, given scientific breakthroughs in a variety of fabric-related fields, from high-street fashion and sportswear (clothes that adapt to environment) that started out in military guise through to the world of medicine.

Over the coming weeks, coaches, federations and other parties (this is unlikely to be a forum for individual letters) should "think carefully" about the issues and submit their views and suggested solutions so that a "sensible framework can be established, so that we can set the limits of what is acceptable and what is not", said the director. Issues range from the thickness of suits - FINA favours a restriction of 0.3mm prior to having considered all views - to the cut of garments and the extent of skin covered by high-tech fabric, from approval processes to whether suits should be checked post-race. Suit makers have been asked to submit their feedback early next year to bring to a close the long drawn out process that started last April.

"In Manchester, we asked the suit makers to go away and work with the association (an international fabric association that sets and monitors international standards) to put together the information we need for building the new framework. So far, nothing," Marculescu noted with a hint of frustration in his voice.  Meantime, suit makers continue to press ahead with updates and upgrades of their suits in time for Rome 2009 and approvals have been given to a number of newcomers to the elite race swimwear market. 

The impact of compression and new fabric technology on swimming dominated the sport this year, and since Speedo launched its LZR Racer in February, companies such as TYR, Arena, adidas and Blueseventy, have emerged or joined the technological race to find the "fastest suit", contributing to 54 long-course and 35 short-course global standards by the close of the World Cup season in Berlin on Sunday night. It is no longer just the Speedo suit that is catching the wave. Cameron Van Der Burgh, of South Africa, set three breaststoke world records on the cup circuit wearing a Blueseventy suit that was not even a player in the sport before this past summer. In Berlin, Paul Biedermann, of Germany, wore an Arena Revolution to press on past Ian Thorpe's 2000 standard. We have yet to see who will be the first key name to race in a new Rocket suit.

SwimNews has seen documents written by a number of suit makers that suggest there is a relatively wide disparity of opinion on buoyancy, how to test for it and how thick suits should be. There is scant discussion, if any at all, about any restrictions on the technological properties of suits, the engineering of suits. That aspect is key to the increase in speed already seen. More speed gains will surely come if the sport is seen as a free-for-all destination for scientific experiment that may have valuable application beyond the pool but be undesirable in it, as far as the extent to which what a swimmer wears affects his or her performance.

There are also issues of whether age limits should be imposed on use of bodysuits and consideration given to the fact that some garments can take more than half an hour just to fit. Cost is an issue, particularly when some suits selling for between $200 and $500 have a very short shelf-life, while modern rules would have to look ahead and cater for the advent of science that the sport would be unhappy to embrace.

The February think tank, the date for which has yet to be agreed, sets a deadline for the sport. It may also - indeed it should - give time for the Bureau to consider proposals at its March meeting, in time for submission to the FINA Congress in Rome in July.

There is broad acceptance that the latest generation of suits enhances performance and that current rules are inadequate when it comes to drawing lines and limits acceptable to the sport at large. Definitions needed to be clarified and "parameters set". The current use of the word "device" is open to interpretation, a word written into the rule book at a time when swimmers were wearing nylon briefs. The suit was not deemed to be a device. But in a world where the suit enhances speed, it clearly is more than just a suit. 

The biggest movement on the suits has come from the US, where a ban on the use of bodysuits by those 12 years and younger  has been imposed. Similar moves are expected in Australia, while US colleges are considering the issue of suits at a time when Speedo is offering the LZR for sale at knock-down rates.

On the final day of the 2008 Arena World Cup, the talk on the deck among disgruntled European coaches is that the latest generation of bodysuits has led the sport down a slippery slope. The issues ranged from availability of suits to a desire in some quarters to return to pre-2008 garments.  

One coach said: "You can't get the LZR. My swimmers couldn't get it at all for months now. It's a lie that the suits are available to all. They're not. The new Speedo suit is now being worked on. Some will have it well before others. It is a total mess."

The bodysuits had changed the nature of the sport, said one coach. "If we went back to small suits right now, many of these people would be out. I saw a ... girl in the medley today who you would never imagine could be a world-class swimmer. But the suit is pressing her into shape. Swimmers are now saying, I can cut out the whole core training phase because I can just put the suit on and it will hold me in the right place."

FINA politicians, said one coach, "have no concept of what these suits are doing. As long as the money comes in and their political position is safe, they don't care about where they're leading the sport."

Another coach added: "Let's be clear. You can't be certain what the guy in the next lane is wearing. It would be good to have a moratorium on this so that we can establish the framework under which we, from all countries, are happy to operate. Right now, there is no standard. It's out of control."

The February Think Thank is aimed at finding solutions for the sport in a money-driven modern era. It offers the sport an opportunity that should not be passed over.

Meantime, the international federation has suggested to the IOC four umbrella extensions to the Olympic programme for London 2012: 50m sprints on backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly and an 800m for men and 1,500m for women, in line with the World Championship programme; 12 women's water polo teams instead of eight; 12 synchronised swimming teams; addition of compulsory elements in synchro. Marculescu said that reports that it had submitted plans to the IOC to extend the 10km marathon programme to a 5km and a team event were incorrect.