The past week and the one ahead will go down as one of the busiest fortnights in the life of Prof. Jan-Anders Manson, a man on whose independent shoulders rests the future direction of the sport of swimming.
His task is to find the framework for a new regime on swim suits, one that offers a "scientific" explanation for a year like no other in swimming history when it came down to widescale, unusually large gains on the clock and a set of results skewed by a simple fact: in 2008, the swim suit became a device that worked better for some than others, was more readily available to some that others and enhanced and aided performance where the FINA rule book says that they should not: speed, buoyancy and endurance.
Late last year, FINA accepted that it could not go on turning a blind eye. The sport has gone too far down the road to being an equipment-based sport and losing one of the key elements that makes swimming so special: the importance of water and how humans move through it. Athletes are not boats, keels, boards, clubs or rackets - they are human. Humans in water. Humans against humans in water. A great sport. Why muddy it? No reason apart from poor ones.
That having been accepted, now starts the craft of the scientist. Much yet hangs in the balance. We are told - and there is no reason not to have faith in the process launched by FINA nor the man at the independent helm of that process, Prof Manson - that the international federation is committed to ridding itself of the cancer of 2008.
No-one you speak to among political and scientific worthies calls into question Prof Manson's independence. Neither do I. On so many levels, he appears well suited - perhaps even the perfect choice - for the task at hand. But all independent processes start not with a suggested solution but with a question that tells us the nature of the independent mission.
In that sense, what FINA has asked Prof Manson to do - the very terms of the engagement - will have an important bearing on the outcome. Few now doubt FINA's commitment to get this right, though the timing of events is not one that s perfect world would have delivered. While the February 20 statement of FINA was encouraging and clearly indicated that the federation is looking in the right direction to find a solution that preserves the special nature of the sport for which it holds stewardship, it raised many questions. Questions that cannot be answered until Prof Manson delivers his recommendation. Pity the professor: by March 12-14, he will need to have come up with good "scientific" explanation
On February 20, after the FINA Executive and Technical Swimming Commission, Legal, Coaches and Athletes Commissions’ representatives, representatives of 16 swimwear manufacturers in Lausanne, the international federation confirmed its commitment to stopping the rot when it declared that its ruling Bureau would, at its next gathering on March 12-14 in Dubai, consider "amendments" to the ‘FINA Requirements for Swimwear Approval’. Since then, questions on the issues raised by FINA in accordance to the wishes of coaches and others have multiplied. Such as:
FINA went on to say that "In a further step, rules applicable from January 1, 2010 will also be examined by the Bureau. One of the main aspects to be considered is the limitation of the use of non-permeable material." QUESTION - if water is where the sport is at, why negate it? Make water count: non-permeable should equal no-go.
Of all the above, the one thing that will, according to all sources you speak to, make it into swimming law is the one-suit rule. Great. But note: the vast majority of those who broke world records in 2008 wore just one suit, some of the most extraordinary gains made on the clock by the end of the year. Amaury Leveaux's efforts, for example - came not off the back of a wetsuit lookalike and multiple suit wearing but off the back of one suit - a TYR number that TYR said was exactly the model approved by FINA with no subsequent adjustments, even though many at the pool in Rijeka last December believed that the French sprinter was wearing a garment that was not widely available to all. We must, of course, believe that TYR is sincere. Sincere too in its claims for a suit that its own publicity tells us enhances performance - and how!
The same goes for Speedo: be it Eamon Sullivan, a born-again Ashley Callus, an Alain Bernard almost unrecognisable from the man who failed to make a final at Melbourne 2007, the world of medley and backstroke women who wiped away the past in a tidal wave of "progress" with swims that made the off-the-chart steroid-driven efforts of Wu Yanyan and others look ordinary. All done in the LZR Racer. Not two or three of them. Just the one at a time. And just for the record, no, the LZR did not have much to do at all with those eight gold medals of Michael Phelps. He won four of them in jammers - and he won seven golds in an FS Pro in 2007 and six in Athens 2006 and on and on. Ah, I hear some say - one rule for some, another for others. You bet. That's the point: the 2008 model of suits worked differently for different people.
Natalie Coughlin has oft been used as a pawn in the "see - it's not the suit" camp. When she says "we'll, I don't think it makes a big difference at all", she's telling it like she sees it. She trained on core strength for years to do what she's great at. Her progress from 2002 to 2004 to 2007 to 2008 is knocked into a cocked hat by most of the 57 others who by Beijing had swamped the all-time world rankings in the 100m backstroke (at a glance, the average new annual intake to that 100 club each year for the past 20 has been around 15).
Odd then, that some still think the suit issue is not worth a second glance. Take "Tom", a reader who tells me it's time to stop flogging a dead horse. Tom has another explanation for all that speed in your suit (and I quote): "HGH, Insulin Growth factor, CERA, Epogen, Micro-dosing, Test-E, Di-Hydromethylandrosterone (the clear)". Now there's a nightmare beyond the suits. Not sure if Tom has someone in mind, some groups of people in mind, all of you who leapt ahead last year in mind? I'm sure you'll all be happy to step out of the shadows and show us your pharms. Come out now - yes, you there cheating yourself, cheating all those around you - you know who you are - and one day we will too.
There you go Tom - happy now? Perhaps not. Tom goes on to call into question my genetic make-up and cerebral function. I feel somewhat less moved by that than I suspect many of you will doubtless feel about having all that hard work and commitment - you know, all that stuff that had nothing to do with a suit - put down to the cookies in the jar described by Tom. Of course, if the kind of aberration on clock and result sheet seen in 2008 was not largely or even partly down to the suit, then perhaps Tom has a point, a point already made well by Gary Hall Jr and others (inc self) last year.
Thanks for the reminder Tom. We'll keep it in mind - as we have been doing since before many of those who will line up for glory in 2012 were even a twinkle in their father's eye; as we did through the GDR, as we did through the China crisis, as we did when I brought news to the world of Michelle Smith de Bruin's fall, as we did on countless occasions, as we did by putting pertinent questions about doping, anti-doping procedures and much more at too many press conferences and in too many phone calls to count down the years. Be assured Tom - we haven't forgotten.
As for that dead horse - sorry to disappoint, but it's still running, it is fast, it is significant and it will, almost certainly, be galloping in the pool, lamentably, for much of the rest of this year, including, tragically, in Rome 2009 at world titles.
The arguments for not acting sooner than 2010 on several levels that matter greatly stand on two foundations: 1 - it is unfair to now tell suit makers who have a product lead-in time of two years that within weeks all they have researched, paid for and been given permission to use by FINA is obsolete; and 2 - if swimming is to get it right for the future, it better get it right in word, in deed, in test, in process and in rule book. Point 2 makes point 1 a little more palatable. But not much.
Looking at those two platforms in isolation, the argument of lead-in times is understandable, though it is tempting to note that the LZR was a sudden and unpleasant surprise sprung on non-Speedo swimmers and rivals back in February 2008. Many never recovered, some were robbed of their Olympic dream - because of a suit. Doubt it? Ask Felicity Galvez (at the heart of Speedo country) and many others. Speedo and others are to be given more time to adjust and adapt. That's a good return on their money and should allow (turning to point 2) FINA to then do the decent thing for the long term.
Some would like to see a greater commitment to change from FINA and the suit makers. For example: in the transitional period, all March 21 approved suits may be worn in all competition until new rules come into force on January 1, 2010 - but at the Rome 2009 world championships, in the interests of fair play, we FINA, with the agreement of suit makers, agree that no suits worn after Melbourne 2007 will be worn. The big problem there is that FINA approved not only the LZR but many models and brands that had no suits in the race pool in 2007. The potential for legal wrangling is strong and in that sense, FINA's course is both prudent (given that the federation is now trying to undo what it gave permission to pass in 2007-2008) and painful.
In that long term, politically, forgiveness for the errors of late 2007-early 2008 and since will be that much easier if this:
“FINA has studied this matter very carefully, and together with all interested parties and the scientific expertise of EPFL, we have reached the best possible result. With these amendments, FINA shows that it continues to monitor the evolution of the sport’s equipment with the main objective of keeping the integrity of sport. While we need to remain open to evolution, the most important factors must be the athletes’ preparation and physical condition on achieving their performances” - FINA President Mustapha Larfaoui, Feb 20, 2009.
turns into this:
"We apologise to all those whose Olympic dreams were shattered in 2008, not because they stepped back from the challenge but because - like Felicity Galvez, like David Maitre, like so many others who finished third at their domestic trials around the world - they were often beaten by swimmers whose potential and performance had been totally transformed by a suit. We, the guardians of the sport have understood the issue and will right the wrong because we are committed to having a non-equipment based sport."
It is not only time for the spin to end but time for the guardians of the sport to claim back the confidence that has been lost in them. By September, 2009, the current FINA suit approvals regime is over, contractually and legally. As such, FINA need not rush to judgement on phase II of the solution to the suit crisis in the next few weeks, but it should try to do all it can to ensure that the worst aspects of the sport are cut out in time to save Rome from being labelled Rijeka.
We hear that some would like to tell suit makers this spring what 2010 will hold. It may well be impossible for Prof Manson to have spoken to all those he needs to speak to in time to deliver a final framework by March 12-24 (or sooner - someone has to type it all up and print it out...). It should suffice to tell suit makers: prepare for a very different world. Prepare for a world in which we will not tolerate you telling the consumer that your suit will enhance performance by "3%", "5%", reduce drag by "40%", provide "X% better lift" etc etc. We will not tolerate that for two reasons: some of the claims are false, and those that are true are unacceptable in our sport.
While an irrelevance to the work of Prof Manson and team, the independent process and eventual bureaucractic decisions take place against a backdrop of unseemly political manoeuvring, at world and continental levels. Promises are swaying like the ebb and flow of an ocean. Some effective promises have already been extended to suit makers who for a number of reasons - including financial prudence - do not want regime change by July. Thus the problem of 2008 will spill (as it already has - world records will not stop tumbling) into 2009 because politically, financially and legally, it has proved too hard a journey for a FINA weakened by its own decisions to get to where it surely now knows where it needs to be in 2010 at the latest. Whatever deals are done, whatever commitments are made, all of those involved need to know one thing: get the suits issue wrong and no promise will be worth its salt, for the very foundation on which FINA was built will crumble and many will be washed away.
We hope it need never come to that. FINA is doubtless on the right lines and ought to be supported in its efforts by all who value the integrity of the sport. Meantime, FINA need not worry about battles won or lost on the issue of suits: as the Bureau meet in March, they need to think only in terms of a whole sport being won or lost.
And on that note, I'm taking the week off. Hope all those not on Tom's cocktail have a good one and hope it is a particularly enlightening one for a scientist called Prof Jan-Anders Manson. The sport of swimming rests on the Manson measure.