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USA Votes To Ban The Bodysuit

Nov 23, 2008  - Craig Lord

As scientists confirm that the true doping suit could all-too-soon be heading to a pool near you, the American federation proposes to FINA a restriction on the extent that suits can cover the body

A version of this article appears in The Sunday Times of London today

USA Swimming - at its Board meeting this past week - calls for

  • International ban on bodysuit through restriction of fabric cover to above the knee and shoulder straps
  • A one-suit rule (no wearing of two suits in one race)
  • approved suits be available to all for at least 12 months before an Olympic Games

From the world of science:

  • the first doping suit is a stroke of science away
  • testing of the technology and its impact on human body would be “impossible”
  • writing an enforceable rule to keep the technology at bay would be ”impossible”

The death of the bodysuit is nigh: the world's swimming super power, the United States, is pressing for an international ban on the shoulder-to-ankle skin-tight super-hero costume that blasted swimming into a new era of speed this year and was worn by almost 90 per cent of all medal winners in Beijing. (See the wording here)

On the surface, the American volte face on the genre of suit that helped to sweep Michael Phelps to an historic eight Olympic gold medals in Beijing and in which 70 of a record 90 world records have fallen to swimmers from 13 countries since February this year, is a reaction to the unexpected tidal wave of progress in the sport since the launch of the NASA-designed LZR Racer by British company Speedo in February. 

But there is something much darker lurking in the birthing pool: a supersuit that works with the body, that interacts directly with the central nervous system and brain, a suit that is capable of "interactive biofeedback". In time, it may be able to remove pain. The full doping suit is a stroke of science away and no FINA rules are currently in place to stop it.

At the end of a year in which far too many at the helm of the bureaucracy of FINA have been blinded by the $4m and more flowing into the coffers from suit makers this Olympic cycle – and have then turned that blind eye to the overwhelming evidence that suits now enhance performance significantly -  the sport is about to wake up to a nightmare: the future of speed may have less to do with what an athlete takes than what he wears – and experts say that it would be impossible to test for impact on the nervous system. Impossible, then, to write a rule.

“The potential to enhance performance well beyond current achievements is vast,” an expert told SwimNews and The Sunday Times, London. “Suits can edit the signals going to the brain, suggest signals, or amplify signals. This technology is not being used in sport at this time, but is in the military, medically, and in space. It’s not science fiction. It exists."

FINA rules are unfit for the present, let alone the future. The Speedo suit - which has opened the doorway to bodysuits from five brands new to elite pool swimming in the past six months – includes strategically placed polyurethane panels and compression properties that help to improve performance. Descriptions of what the suit achieves varies. In effect, it serves as a corset that helps the body in a way that months of core strength training might achieve for the super talented in a standard suit. It fights fatigue by propping up stomach muscles and tired legs for longer and provides some swimmers with a much-improved body position in the water. The lift gained from the suit serves to make the swimmer an aquatic bullet. Some gain more than others.

As a leading German coach put it last week as he watched the World Cup in Berlin last weekend: "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’."

That, according to whispers filtering out from the scientific community, is just the beginning. Fabric engineering already used in the military field will soon make headlines for all the right reasons: it can cure the sick, relieve pain for the terminally ill, provide speedy rehabilitation for crash victims, improve the lives of millions. But how long before the technology reaches the world of sport and employed in combat on the frontline of the war on doping?

An independent source said: “There is a wide open opportunity for design of a completely new industry in the direction that FINA has opened up for swimsuit technology. Lots of money is out there, it is only a matter of time before the sport has completely and permanently changed into a totally different sport. Swimming is rare ... it relies on the direct interaction of the human nervous system and the environment. This can all be done with conventional textiles ... already being used in suits that FINA has approved. It would be impossible to describe limitations in engineering in a rule document that would prevent the suit from activating the nervous system."

The rules of FINA - which has allowed a suit that was not “available to all”, as the rule dictates, to dominate the sport  - could not hold the supersuit at bay, while debate has so far focussed mainly on cost - £350 for a suit that might last one or two races. Impoverished US colleges have banned the suit (prompting Speedo to offer 65% discounts), while the US has banned bodysuits for use by 12 and unders and Australia is considering proposals to ban the costumes for all juniors. 

Alarm bells are now ringing as focus shifts to ethical issues. Current legislation says that no "device" shall be used to enhance performance. To get round that, FINA said that the suit is not a device, even though the clock suggests otherwise. It is 32 years since the first man swam inside 50sec on 100m freestyle. It took until 2000 to get inside 48sec, and only one man - Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, was able to do that until this year. Now there are 11 men inside 48sec and the world record stands at 47.05. Talk is of the first sub 47sec swim next year. But those working on the technology of the future simple smile at that: "Very powerful effects would be achievable with what could soon unfold." A man on 45sec 100 free by London 2012? Yes, came the reply. We might not have expected that until the 2020s.

The current rule on suits states that "no swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance..." USA Swimming now wants the words "or swimsuit" inserted after the word "device".

To get round the trickiness of suits that enhance performance, FINA said that the suit "is not a device", even though the clock has shown improvements of almost 2 per cent across most events from those ranked at the very helm of the sport to those outside the best 100 in the world, and from all corners of the globe. In previous years, an overall gain of more than 0.5 per cent in times from one year to the next would have been statistically significant. Swimming has been transformed. In an average year you might expect an average of five new entries in the list of the all-time fastest 20 swims in any one Olympic event. This year, that average has more than doubled. In the men's 50m freestyle 15 of the best 20 times ever recorded have been set since February and the world record that stood in January is now 9th best. In the women's 100m backstroke the all-time fastest 15 times have been clocked  since February at the helm of a tidal wave of improvement that has placed 56 new entries in the all-time top 100 list, compared to an average of 24 in the previous five Olympic years, 1988 to 2004.

USA has also called for suit testing to be conducted by "an independent agency will utilize established globally recognized scientific testing procedures to determine compliance".

That may not, in itself, keep the supersuit at bay. The potential application of neuroscience technology in fabrics destined for the general population is past the point of no return, experts suggest. Some who understand the science have understood the "value" of its application to sport. So how can swimming blow the whistle? Surely it would be easy to identify the "Batman suit" in a line-up of suits? Not so, say experts. "This can all be done with conventional textiles and materials that are readily available in the industry and are already being used in suits that FINA has already approved. It would be impossible to describe limitations in engineering in a rule document that would prevent the suit from activating the nervous system."

In its submission to FINA, the board of USA Swimming calls for a change of rule to one that specifies that "the competitor must wear only one swimsuit in one or two pieces which shall not cover the neck, extend past the shoulder, nor past the knee." It also wants all approved suits to be "available for all competitors for 12 months prior to the Olympic Games". That is aimed at avoiding a repeat of the fiasco that saw FINA grant Speedo a massive advantage over rivals who imagined that the technology in the LZR broke the spirit of the rule book. Nike, having invested many millions in its first four years in the sport, turn its back on swimming as athletes tore up contracts in order to wear the LZR Racer, while TYR, a US firm, sued USA Swimming after head coach Mark Schubert, both backed by Speedo, said in April that swimmers had a "black and white decision - the money [contracts with other suit makers] or the gold medal". 

Unless rules are changed radically, the smart money is on a suit that relies on breakthroughs in neuroscience that “can amplify or reduce [brain] signals as they break up, activating certain parts of the brain selectively,” says an expert. The stage is set for a revolution in the pool that will knock 2008 into a cocked hat, according to sources who understand the science heading swimming's way far better than those who govern the sport and those who spend their lives preparing athletes and preparing the environment in which athletes and the sport can thrive.

FINA will meet coaches and suit makers at a series of Think Tank crisis talks in January and February. Some fear that FINA does not really want to listen but Cornel Marculescu, the Executive Director, has given his pledge that the international federation is keen to find a solution and draw a line. Good news - and not a moment too soon. 

The sport hangs in the balance. The conclusion that many leading figures in the sport are coming to, including some of the world's cutting-edge coaches, is a simple one: return to skin. The more of it you show, the less likely you invite the doping suit into the pool, the purer you keep your sport.

As one figure of authority put it: "If we don't stop the suits now, our sport will be destroyed by this and future developments.” The last thing swimming needed was “to become the 'testing ground' for companies that want to do medical experiments on humans to promote their new products. The Roman Circus is here." It needn’t be.