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A Chink Of Light in The FINA Darkness

Apr 28, 2009  - Craig Lord

There is a chink of light on the horizon. First the bad news we know about: it unfolded every day in every race at the French nationals, was the only theme at the Spanish nationals, dominated debate at the Dutch nationals, touched on events at trials in Britain and has dominated debate in the swimming world for the past year, most intensively since SwimNews ran Suit Week back in October. 

FINA responded, the Dubai Charter emerged - there was hope but the bad news continued: Rome 2009 was likely to mark a continuation of at least some of the suit performance enhancement that we have seen in the past year since the launch of the LZR, a wonderful piece of research that ought never to have been let into the race pool prior to open debate about the inevitable consequences of such a move. 

The definition of material was changed at that moment. That was a mistake. It took the sport by surprise, though the likely consequences were there for any to see who wanted to see, right from the start, on the eve of mayhem.

As L'Equipe asks in a banner headline this morning: "And Now - Where Do We Go From Here?"  We cannot judge for certain, until FINA issues its list of approved suits, what level of performance-enhancement will remain in the race pool this summer. We do now know what is yet to be revealed in detail: all suits that swimmers intend to wear in racing in Rome will have to be handed in a few days before action gets underway and those suits will be tagged in some way that will allow an official to use a supermarket-checkout-like gun to read a bar code and know that the swimmer is wearing the approved suit he or she submitted for tagging.

L'Equipe, of course, is not only posing the question for this summer but for the future of swimming. Alongside an article looking at the issues and recalling the woe of five days in Montpellier is a photo of eight swimmers leaving their blocks in shiny bullet suits and a comment by Benoit Lallement that poses the question: suits have enhanced performance but is there something darker still enhancing performance in the pool? Ar the suits masking doping? Like world records and unrecognisable world rankings that have been transfigured 300 deep by big best times from many dozens of countries from many thousands of programmes around the world with not much in common beside a suit, the question about doping was also an inevitable one the moment suits were allowed to play a significant role in performance. One more prop for dope cheats to hide behind.

Thoughts of Rome 2009 and Rome 1994 leave many with a sinking feeling for the summer ahead. A summer that is likely to have more of those lists found in L'Equipe yesterday, when the French paper rolled out Gaul's world championship team according to the type of suit worn by each selected swimmer. That will all be part of the bad news in the weeks and months ahead and in Rome if FINA tests allow all current models to survive, as has been suggested.

And now the better news, even good news, perhaps: a vast amount of work has been undertaken at the University of Lausanne, by the FINA office in the same Swiss city, and by Prof Jan-Anders Manson, the head of the independent testing process that will deliver its verdict for Rome 2009 in May and decide what will survive and what will not survive from January 1, 2010 inwards. 

Many scientific measures mean little to the wider swimming community. Some science leaves swimmers, coaches and certainly bureaucrats in awe, in the way that villagers were in awe of a man who donned a headdress, painted his feet in dots and stripes and spoke in tongues thousands of years ago before days of enlightenment arrived. There can be no question that FINA is right to have hit on the idea, albeit rather belatedly, that rigorous testing, backed by quantifiable science, is what is required in a world in which patents exist for "materials" that look like a swim suit but speak to the central nervous system of the human body. Those dark "materials" were developed for military purposes. They can be put to positive use. For healing the sick, easing the pain of the dying. They are now making their way into mainstream clothing and sports equipment, specifically, swim suits are specified as a target market. Better that FINA, coaches, swimmers and parents all be ready. 

For this summer, buoyancy is measured in terms of 1 Newton in the context of and the Dubai Charter, and allowable thickness of suits is 1mm. Better news will be made more widely available at FINA Congress in Rome, when those who run the sport debate what must happen from January 1, 2010, if swimming is to put the wild mare back in its box and the harmful genie back in its bottle. 

SwimNews understands that the measures that will be in place for Rome in terms of what is allowable in suits will be increased four-fold - in layman's terms - when it comes to assessing buoyancy, that allowable thickness of suits will be just about halved  and that the 50% non permeable material (such as polyurethane) limit on suits, with a 25% distribution required above waist and below waist, is still being debated. There are many more figures being shown to suit makers by Prof Manson and his team in an effort to cooperate with those who make suits. Cooperation makes sense. Kow-towing does not.

What we have seen in France definitively tells us that non permeable material enhances performance well beyond anything we have ever seen before in swimming. The LZR and other suits of 2008 used some of those materials in panels - more than the 50% limit it seems to me, and certainly more than 25% at at least one end of the body if not both. The question is: why does swimming need non permeable material in the first place? If the purpose is to enhance performance by changing angle buoyancy, by serving to reduce fatigue at the end of races, by helping those less technically gifted and blessed by nature with a special feeling for and position in water - and thus changing the result of a race in terms of speed and in terms of finishing order of swimmers - then the purpose is rotten and should be cut out.

It is important at this point to know who is debating that question. It is imagined far and wide that the FINA Bureau are heavily involved in the brain-storming and are taking decision on the basis of what is good for the sport of swimming in terms of attempting to preserve the special nature of swimming as a sport that has never before been seen as being equipment based (It is now). According to documents seen by SwimNews, the views of suit makers in terms of what percentage of non permeable material ought to be used are awaited like rain once the seed is sown. Having seen some of the views of FINA coaching and swimmers' representatives, including the likes of legends Alex Popov and Janet Evans, it is clear that they do not want an equipment-based sport. It is also clear that their views have been heard and well received. 

SwiNews has also seen references to Speedo urging FINA to listen hard to the views of coaches on the issue of non permeable material, for it is coaches who must surely know better than any what they see on a daily and weekly basis as swimmers train, practice racing and race in a variety of suits. Good for Speedo - provided that message from coaches is not one that seeks advantage by removing one boost while retaining another. 

Coaches, above all, will know what their charges are truly capable of. Many have now been happy to express those views, no longer afraid of hurting their swimmers, on the basis of one clear and unarguable fact: the decision is down to FINA alone and the sport that they deliver is the sport that will remain. 

The thought, of course, does not stop there. In my mail I have had thousands and thousands of views sent in from around the world. The vast majority are in favour of calling a halt to performance enhancing suits. They include many of the biggest names in swimming from the past and present. They also include a fair few questions that boil down to: how can we set up our own federation and leave FINA if FINA fail to get this right? Several suggestions are made and two very large financial outfits have let it be known that they would be prepared to back a league of pure swimming should FINA fail in its responsibility as the guardian of swimming.

That feeling of failure, I believe, will be alive and kicking this summer - though I would be delighted to report that I was not optimistic enough while awaiting news from the international federation and the independent testing process. If we must live through 2008, Rijeka, Montpellier, the Spanish nationals and so on, yet again in Rome, an open war of words and schism in the pool in full view of the world can only be avoided by FINA and the delivery of a no-compromise message on suits from January 1, 2010: swimming will not be equipment based, it will not use materials that enhance performance in a way that makes a mockery of the sport by rendering progress on the clock meaningless along the thread of history. 

And on that note, the other recurring theme in the suits nightmare is this: what to do about all those fast times and records. The answer is probably: nothing. Nothing was done about GDR times and the efforts of others such as Wu Yanyan and Chen Yan, after off-the-chart times were followed by doping suspensions. hard then to say to Eamon Sullivan, who we assume to be clean: hard luck, son, we're taking your record of you. Some believe that FINA, just as it can approved suits, can remove approval retrospectively - and therefore rescind the records of February 2008 until the Jan 1, 2010 regime is in place. FINA lawyers would doubtless raise eyebrows at that suggestion, even though it appeals to the sense of fairness and integrity that FINA says it is committed to returning to the sport after those qualities were lost in 2008. Whatever happens with records and best times, we can be sure of one thing: the world record list of February 1, 2008, will be a collectors' item. 

And here it is, with current record in brackets and a last column figures for the all-time performance ranking of the old world record (Feb 1, 2008) as at April 2009 (and remember, this is the tip of an iceberg - what lies below is often even more crushing):


  • Alex Popov (RUS) 21.64 (20.94) 25th
  • Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED) 47.84 (46.94) 26th 
  • Michael Phelps (USA) 1:43.86 (1:42.92) 3rd
  • Ian Thorpe (AUS) 3:40.08 - surviving 
  • Grant Hackett (AUS) 7:38.65 - surviving
  • Grant Hackett (AUS) 14:34.56 - surviving
  • Thomas Rupprath (GER) 24.80 (24.33) 8th
  • Aaron Peirsol (USA) 52.98 (52.54) 9th
  • Aaron Peirsol (USA) 1:54.32 (1:53.94) 3rd
  • Oleg Lisogor (UKR) 27.18 (27.06) 2nd
  • Brendan Hansen (USA) 59.13 (58.91) 2nd
  • Brendan Hansen (USA) 2:08.50 (2:07.51) 3rd
  • Roland Schoeman (RSA) 22.96 (22.43) 8th (all in 2009)
  • Ian Crocker (USA) 50.40 - surviving (by 0.06sec)
  • Michael Phelps (USA) 1:52.09. (1:52.03, with goggles full of water, so more to come yet...) 2nd
  • Michael Phelps (USA) 1:54.98 (1:54.23) 3rd
  • Michael Phelps (USA) 4:06:22 (4:03.84) 5th
  • USA 3:12.46 (3:08.24) 10th (seven nations beyond US past old record) 
  • USA 7:03.24 (6:58.56) 2nd 
  • USA 3:30.68 (3:29.34) 3rd


  • Inge de Bruijn (NED) 24.13 (23.96) 2nd
  • Britta Steffen (GER) 53.30 (52.88) 9th
  • Laure Manaudou (FRA) 1:55.52 (1:54.47) 5th
  • Laure Manaudou (FRA) 4:02.13 (4:00.69) 4th
  • Janet Evans (USA) 8:16.22 (8:14.10) 2nd
  • Kate Ziegler (USA) 15:42.54 - surviving
  • Li Yang (CHN) 28.09 (27.47) 19th (10 in 2008, 9 in 2009 so far)
  • Natalie Coughlin (USA) 59.44 (58.77) 27th
  • Krisztina Egerszegi (HUN) 2:06.62 (2:05.24) 5th
  • Jade Ediminstone (AUS) 30.31 - (30.05) 2nd
  • Leisel Jones (AUS) 1:05.09 - surviving
  • Leisel Jones (AUS) 2:20.54 (2:20.22) 2nd
  • Therese Alshammar (SWE) 25.46 (25.33) 2nd
  • Inge de Bruijn (NED) surviving (by 0.08sec)
  • Jessica Schipper (AUS) 2:05.40 (2:04.18) 5th
  • Wu Yanyan (CHN) 2:09.72* (2:08.45) 8th (*Hoff, 11th)
  • Katie Hoff (USA) 4:32.89 (4:29.45) 8th
  • GER 3:35.22 (3:33.62) 5th
  • USA 7:50.09 (7:44.31) 4th (in Italy from 8:01.11 to 7:49.76)
  • AUS 3:55.74 (3:52.69) 3rd

*- 1997, and subsequently doping suspended. Best clean effort up to Feb 1, 2008 - Katie Hoff (USA) 2:10.05