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European Coaches Lodge 11-Point Protest

Dec 13, 2008  - Craig Lord

At the end of a year that has (so far) seen 101 world records fall, 15 of Europe's leading nations - coaches backed by federations (Sweden is yet to make up its mind) - staged a deckside protest at the end of the third day of action here the European s/c Championships in Rijeka. A petition that has the support of American colleagues calls for an end to high-tech trickery in the sport.

The shockwaves still rippling from Amaury Leveaux's 44.94sec 100 free WR blast, coaches called on FINA to take action on an issue that is causing mayhem in the sport. Many would like to see a ban on bodysuits, a ban on  compression, on core stabilisation, bio feedback. They want independent testing. And they want it all in place by Rome 2009. The USA has already submitted proposals to FINA.

As the Dutch relay girls walked off the poolside to the right, a core group of coaches, representing what some coaches described as "about 90% of all coaches at the meet", with some still to sign - including France - walked on to the left, made a stand in front of the LEN Office overlooking the pool, handed in signed copies of an 11-point plan that they demand to be implemented in time for the World Championships in Rome next summer and then handed out copies to anyone who cared to know what all the fuss is about.

The one sheet protest states:

Key Point: "...we ask for regulations on issues as indicated and mentioned below. These issues must be discussed and implemented by FINA rules before the World Championships in Rome 2009.

Issues with Suits:

  • 1. Double or triple suits
  • 2. Buoyancy: a, thickness of materials; b, additional fabrics (neoprene, polyurethane)
  • 3. Compression and core stablisation
  • 4. Bio feedback
  • 5. Transparent testing process by knowledgeable INDEPENDENT commission
  • 6. suits approved 9 to 12 months in advance of major competition in order to guarantee availability
  • 7. Enforcement (in competition suit control)

Without regulations other issues can influence our sport: 

  • 1. Talent identification challenges (inflated times)
  • 2. Affordability (suits are expensive)
  • 3. Time standards (how do you set time standards for competitions) 

Jacco Verhaeren, Dutch director and mentor to Pieter van den Hoogenband, told SwimNews: "The great thing is that the coaches backing this are the coaches who are having success with swimmers wearing these suits. They are saying 'our teams are wearing it because it is allowed not because we want it'. We need action on this and we need it soon."

The face of swimming changed beyond recognition as Leveaux, of France, stunned the sport with the 100th world record of a year in which high-tech suit technology has rocketed the sport a decade ahead of itself. Leveaux's 44.94sec victory in the 100m freestyle compares to the 45.83 at which the sprint mark stood until last weekend. A second gain over 100m is unheard of. The world record fell to France's Alain Bernard in 45.69 only last weekend. Leveaux got past that with a 45.12 effort in the semi-finals on Saturday that sent shock waves rippling around the world of swimming. Leveaux's best a year ago was 47.51.

His blast below 45sec delivered another bomb to the campaign, driven by the USA, to rid the sport of high-tech bodysuits. Leveaux, 23 and from Mulhouse, said: "I desperately wanted to break that mythical barrier of 45 seconds - and I did it!" No one else came remotely close. Silver went to teammate Fabien Gilot in 45.84 and bronze to 2007 world l/c champion Filippo Magnini (ITA), in 46.62.

Just 13 months ago, the world mark stood at 46.74 to Russian Alex Popov, quadruple Olympic champion. That time is now the 39th best effort ever. Leveaux is training harder than ever, it is said. He has lost more than 10kg in weight in the past year, we are told. All good stuff. But almost 3sec of gain in a year on a 100, free to a 44.94 is nothing short of staggering. What it took the world to do in well over a decade, Leveaux has done in 12 months. The suit is clearly playing a part, though the brother if Lionel Horter, Franck, told SwimNews that the 23-year-old swimmer is not wearing the right size of a suit that has "not" been individually made for him. He wears a 30 long, said Horter, adding: "It's too small - but that's what he wants to wear." Seems to be doing the trick. 

The timewarp that the sport is travelling down thanks to compression suits that use polyurethane panels and neoprene, a flotation aid, saw two other world marks tumble in Rijeka: after Nikolay Skortsov, of Russia, clocked 1:50.60 in the 200m butterfly (to be fair in a suit that could easily survive any regulatory change), Sanja Jovanovic delighted a home crowd with 26.23 to win the 50m backstroke. The third day of action closed with a world best time to the Dutch women's quartet in the 4x50m medley, their 1:45.73 effort matching the time clocked by Australians last April. The Dutch effort established the 127th European record of the year.

The coaching protest, backed by some of the biggest and most successful federations in the world, followed a clinic on Friday night. Informally, after that clinic, coaches pledged support for the USA proposals to stem the tide of technological suit development swamping their sport. The list of those who will in January at the coaches meeting with FINA will call for a halt to all high-tech trickery in the pool, revert to pre-2008 fabrics and cut back fabric cover in a way that would banish the bodysuit grows longer by the day.

"That message is 'Let's stop - and go back. We have between 80 and 90% of coaches here (Rijeka) in support of that," said Helge Goedecke, senior coach with the Austrian team and a man, free of the ties of contractual obligation hold many back from speaking too openly on the matter of suits, who can say what others think but cannot say - at least not yet.

"What's happening in our sport is stomach-churning," said Goedecke. "It's about fabrics, materials and suits. There is no level playing field anymore. It's a free for all. Are we to have helium in our suits? Why not? There is no control. We have swimmers wearing three suits here. 

"I think 100 world records in a year speaks for itself in a sport with a long tradition. In a new sport you might expect to see records falling regularly. In a sport like swimming, and old sport a sport with a long history, it is making a nonsense of the values we've held dear."

"We must ask 'what is possible in the use of materials'? Why do we need that? This is not F1. We don't want it to be. It's not fun to have that kind of [environment] in our sport. Swimming should be the number 1 theme. It's not. Is it about the training, the talent, the hard work, the coaching? Or is it about the suit and a meaningless number of records by swimmers wearing things we don't want in our sport?

A coach for 27 years, in Germany and, for the past 10 years in Austria, Goedecke has worked with all levels of swimmers, from the likes of Mark Warneke through to junior club swimmers. 

"When the swimmers just wore 'trunks' we had a fair sport. We've lost that now. Suits with neoprene and such things are from the word of open water, where the suits have cooling effects and help swimmers endure long distances in open water conditions. Those things have no place in the pool."

Austria and Austrians, he said, were in the "fortunate position" of having no tie to one brand of suit or another. "It's easier for us to say what many believe and are saying in private: we want a fair sport, fair to all from 1st, 2nd and 3rd through to 8th in [every line-up]. These suits are having a real result - they are changing the result within a line-up." By that, he meant not only on the clock but in the finishing order as suits helped some more than others, in terms of type of suit and type of swimmer's body.

"We should stop, go back," said Goedecke. "We support what America is proposing. We want to cut back the fabric. No bodysuits and supporting materials. How will we regulate that? Are we to have a chip sensor like at the supermarket checkout, to test all suits before the start? God forbid. We want no F1: winter tyres, summer tyres, spoilers for different conditions and so on. Let's get back to roots. This is swimming. It's simple. We have an elemtn. It's called water - and we swim through it. Swimming is so wonderful. It's my life and my livelihood. It churns my stomach to see what's happening here."

He noted that FINA rules are being broken. Beyond the argument over whether a suit is a "device", this is what Goedecke is talking about:  "Amaury has a unique suit. It is tailor-made, just for him, so that it fits him just right and so that the help from the suit is perfect for his body." No name can be attributed to that quote. If there is truth in it - and there is good reason to believe that not only is there truth in it but the practice is fairly common among suit makers and their biggest notes on their score sheet.