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How Close Is adidas To Hanging Up Its Suits?

Nov 30, 2008  - Craig Lord

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

Adidas, which has poured tens of millions of dollars into the race pool in the past 10 years, will follow Nike’s flight from competitive swimming and the race suit market if the sport does not act swiftly to put in place a “fair and professional” set of rules and approval processes. Those should “prevent further damage to a leading Olympic sport now in serious danger of losing its potential to move up to a much higher financial league”, according to a senior industry expert. 

The day that adidas - maker of the first iconic bodysuit that became a hallmark of one of the all-time greats of the sport, Ian Thorpe - turns its back on swimming, would be significant for the status of the sport. FINA will doubtless wish to do all that it can to avoid such an eventuality, particularly at a time when the world economy is likely to dictate a significant shortening of the queue of potential sponsors. 

In the wake of SwimNews revelations last week that a call by USA Swimming to ban high-tech bodysuits from international waters coincides with the imminent arrival of the “doping suit” in a sport that has no rules in place to prevent the use of garments capable of direct interaction with the nervous system, a source close to the organisation charged with drawing up new guidelines for FINA, the international swimming federation, believes that swimming’s financial future hangs in the balance at a time of world economic crisis. 

The problem started when FINA approved the NASA-designed Speedo LZR racer. Within six weeks of its launch in February, 18 world records had fallen. Speedo stole a march on its rivals. Of the record 90 world records to be set this year, 70 were established by swimmers wearing the LZR, while Speedo-clad athletes raced to 89% of all Olympic medals won at the Water Cube in Beijing. Hype and hard fact – hundreds of performances from more than 25 leading swimming countries by April showed speed gains of well over 1% on average across almost all Olympic events – caused swimmers and whole federations to abandon contracts in order to wear the suit that they believed they needed in order to make the podium in China. 

The haunting sound of empty cash registers rang out from rival suit makers, all of which had made sizeable investments of their own in swimming and swimwear. Nike released its swimmers; adidas stuck to its guns but had only one big success (Britta Steffen, the German sprinter, won gold in the 50m and 100m freestyle); TYR, which spent three years and several million dollars developing its Tracer Rise suit, filed an antitrust lawsuit in California on May 12 that accused Speedo, USA Swimming and national team director Mark Schubert (who said in support of Speedo’s suit that swimmers had a “black-and-white decision: the money or the medal” - he spoke both as head coaching guru and as a paid agent for Speedo) of conspiring to block competition; Arena was abandoned by world champion Filippo Magnini and the Italian federation (but is now fighting back tooth and claw, with several key signings around the world); Diana complained to FINA that is had had a suit containing “plasticised” panels similar to the LZR’s just months before the launch of the Speedo suit; and Mizuno, one of three Japanese makers contracted to the national federation found itself unceremoniously dumped after Kosuke Kitajima, 2004 double Olympic champion proved his point by donning the LZR in June and shattering world breaststroke records. Japan wore Speedo in Beijing, and Kitajima became the first double champion in history to double up once more, in the 100m and 200m breaststroke.

A source close to adidas said: "Relationships between suit makers and swimmers have been torn apart. There is no trust. The swimmers aren't the ones to blame. They just want to do their best and win. But FINA must take responsibility now. It is causing a lot of harm."

Against that backdrop, President of FINA, Algerian Mustapha Larfaoui, declared Beijing “a huge success for our sport”. He was looking in just the one direction, of course. Larfaoui now presides over a divided sport and one in danger of being shipwrecked on the issue of suits. An industry expert told SwimNews: “Nike is gone. Adidas could well be next. Traditional relationships between sponsors and athletes have been torn apart because of the way FINA allowed Speedo to do what rivals thought would never be allowed [develop a suit that, against the rules, was an “aid to speed”]. Good for Speedo for developing, good for them that they got this to the market ... but there’s been no change in rules. People have been asking all year – why did FINA let this horse bolt? There has been no answer. Adidas hardly needs swimming. Swimming needs adidas. Nike is unlikely to be persuaded back into the pool. For players that size [Nike and adidas] it is not work risking damage to their bigger markets because of an association with a [FINA] didn't hear the alarm bells ringing. The sport is in disarray.”

Cornel Marculescu, Director of FINA, acknowledges that “it is truly terrible to see Nike leave ... we never wanted that and we have to work hard to change it”. He is in the process of organising crunch industry talks with suit makers in February. While adidas policy is to provide no comment to controversy, sources close to the group said: “To change it will require a change in the way FINA works. Look at all the new suits that have popped up in the last couple of months. Its unbelievable.” 

Protest is snowballing.

At the end of a week in which we revealed that scientists have developed garments said to be capable of interacting with the central nervous system and the engines that drive sports performance with much the same result as banned doping substances can produce, and USA Swimming, the federation at the helm of the world's swimming superpower, has proposed rule changes to FINA that would ban the bodysuit and restrict the amount of fabric that swimmers can wear, European coaches have called for the Blueseventy suit to be banned with immediate effect.

A newcomer to the race suit market, the Blueseventy has been worn buy swimmers who set five (six, depending on who you listen to from the deck at the Canada Cup in Toronto, the confusion part of the general picture of chaos in the sport) world records in the past month, including Julia Smith's 400 medley in Canada on Friday evening. None of those swimmers featured in a big way in solo events in Beijing. On the eve of the European Championships in Croatia next week, European coaches have sent a letter to the European Swimming League calling for action on the Blueseventy after tests were carried out on two young Slovenian swimmers over 50m breaststroke.

“What is happening to our beautiful sport,” said the head coach of one of Europe’s leading swim nations. “This suit is called the Nero Comp suit. That’s perfect because those in charge of the sport are behaving just like Nero in the flames [the Roman Emperor Nero was said to have fiddled while Rome burned]. It's tragic.”

The LZR cost Speedo millions to develop and helped make possible a four-year deal under which the Nottingham-based suit maker is said to pay FINA the bulk of a $4m plus income from suit makers. Small beer, says a senior industry expert: “There’s a long-term price to pay for short-term decisions.” 

Nike and adidas, with annual revenues counted not in millions but billions of dollars, have invested more than $20 million in swimming in the past eight years. That included the first single million-dollar deal seen in the sport: in 2006, Nike, already backing Pieter Van Den Hoogenband, signed a seven-year contract worth between $1m and $2.3 million, depending on results, with Cullen Jones, the first black swimmer ever to hold a world record - as a member of the USA 4x100m freestyle squad. In Beijing, Jones won gold alongside Michael Phelps, Jason Lezak and Garrett Weber-Gale - but he wore the LZR, as agreed with Nike, which had made its decision to retreat from the aquatic frontline.

Results are not confined to the scoreboard. Jones is the figurehead in the campaign to promote diversity in swimming and popularise the sport among minority communities in the USA. Imagine a Nike suit on every kid of any colour who wears Nike trainers or picks up a Tiger Woods club. "The tides have changed in the world of swimming, and there is a lot of money being spent on diversity," Evan Morgenstein, Jones' agent, said at the time. The tide would surely turn back if players of the size of Nike and adidas decide that swimming is not worth their investment.

Nike is not gone altogether: alongside adidas and Mizuno, it is represented on the board of the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI), a Lausanne-based body that monitors standards in sportswear and equipment for the International Olympic Committee in the interests of fair play. 

The man in charge of corralling suit makers into a consensus proposal, agreed by lawyers from adidas, Speedo, Arena and Asics, that has now been handed to FINA is Robbert de Kock, WFSGI Secretary General. He states the industry position clearly: “It is in our commercial interest and the interests of swimming’s financial future to find a way to keep development potential open for suits. There is a marriage of swimming and swim suits.” Quite so.   

In light of our revelations last week, Kock is keen to acknowledge the need to set limits on development, stating: “Any health-damage issues, any integrations that could cause harm, should be eliminated, of course ...". But he wants the door to development left open: "there must be room for innovation and development - and that will bring challenges.” Some of those can be met by introducing independent laboratory testing, so far absent from FINA’s suit approval process.

Meanwhile, leading coaches, including senior figures from the USA, Australia and Canada, and several leading federations around the world have concluded that the only way to deal with the “doping suit” that looks like any other in the current crop of bodysuit clones but can also talk to the body’s engine without a hope of detection, say scientists, is to opt for the retro look. As one coach put it: “The more skin the better, and hey, isn’t that the sexy part of swimming that the bodysuit just can’t deliver? What a tragedy it would have been to cover up a body like [Alex] Popov’s.” That position is not one that suit makers and the WFSGI would necessarily agree with. Some oppose it vehemently. Consensus needs to be reached - and not one that rests of the ability of suit makers to buy the silence of coaches and - through the diplomacy and professionalism needed in a financial relationship between athlete and suit maker - swimmers.

There has never been a greater need for FINA to organise a forum for coaches, suit makers, federations and other key partners in the pool. The Executive Director indicated that such a forum would take place early next year. So far coaches will gather at one forum, suit makers at another, the FINA Bureau at another, and so forth. Time for all to come together and lend weight to the term Think Tank. The future of the sport and its survival as a serious player in international sport now depends on it.