Suit List Surfs A Wave Of Confusion And Protest
May 20, 2009 - Craig Lord
The swimming world woke up with a headache this morning. The list of approved suits is unclear, say many (numbers need to be accompanied by model names and pictures or links to websites perhaps), while others ask 'where is the unapproved list - I want to know which suits I have invested in can be thrown in a sack with the dusters in my cleaning cupboard'.
Alain Bernard's coach Denis Auguin sums up succinctly the feelings of many this morning when he tells L'Equipe: "What is extraordinary is that FINA takes a laissez-faire couldn't care less attitude for 2 years and then, belatedly, they fail [to sort the mess out]." Of course, FINA has been working on things for a fair few months now, and it does indeed take time to sort out a calamitous mess. And one thing stands out: swimming has rid itself of a lot of nonsense in the past 24 hours. Good news. Problems remain.
Auguin notes how easy he feels it would have been for FINA to return to the days of paper suits, how easy it would have been for FINA to issue a list of suits "not-approved" along with the approved list, for clarity's sake. He calls FINA's stance "amateur" because it has left advantage and disadvantage in the water ahead of a world championship. He looks in dismay at the mess left in "world records, world rankings, team selections". On the latter he notes the dreadful position of the France team for Rome, selected largely on the basis of fast-suit times that will be hard if not impossible to match in Rome. He says that he would never wish to say to a swimmer: "'you don't deserve to go' ... It's terrible."
In France, the federation, which stood by helpless as its world championship team was selected largely on the basis of suits that are no more - as were the teams of Spain, Denmark and several other countries - put out a defensive statement that boiled down to: we had no choice but to let it all unfold as it did in the absence of clarity from FINA. In Italy, the federation, having dumped arena in 2008 and gone with newcomer Jaked is grumbling. Let all federations grumble: they should all have had the guts to speak up much, much, much sooner.
Senior L'Equipe reporter Benoit Lallement weighs in with a criticism of the French federation for allowing the use of suits at French nationals that were not yet approved, such as the arena X-Glide used by Alain Bernard on his way to a blistering 46.94 over 100m freestyle, as well as suits that were at serious risk of being barred from use, such at the Jaked01 as worn by Fred Bousquet on the way to that 20.94 stunner of a 50m free.
The blogs and forums of the swimming world are awash with opinion and speculation and accusations that range from libellous fabrication to the probable but unknown, with a sound nugget of biting truth in between. One thing many comments have in common: many believe that the first round of FINA independent suit testing was fixed to favour the LZR.
While the international federation did indeed - without question - consider the position of its equipment partner in this whole scenario and would have tried its best not to damage Speedo's commercial viability, it is also true to say that the LZR, bad as it is, falls shy of the worst offenders of buoyancy, air trapping and a build made to help the swimmer "skim". There is good reason why the LZR makes it and others do not. Not ideal for Rome 2009 but better than it would have been. The question is, of course, better for whom?
The trouble for FINA is that its phasing of the correction of a big mistake made in 2007-2008 has now left it open to the charge of being in Speedo's pocket. For what has been delivered so far is a list that leaves us more or less where we were in Beijing, where the LZR had clearly stolen a march on rivals and provided varying levels of advantage to those who wore it (as do all such suits).
There is also a widely held view that having Mark Schubert and Alan Thompson, head coaches of the leading swim nations, the USA and Australia, respectively, on the suits commission when they are so heavily linked to Speedo represents a conflict of interest. Not hard to see why people feel that way. It is also fair to note, however, that the two men are leading the two biggest swim programmes in the world, are able to offer essential views and that both are said to be committed to ridding the sport of ALL performance-enhancement from suits, including the LZR. It would be good to hear that from both of those head coaches before Rome as a statement of intent.
In fairness to Speedo (as if they need me to be fair to them), the LZR will not be the only booster in the Eternal City this summer. For while all of this comes late in the day, it is early days yet as far as what may still make it to the waters of the Foro Italico. No fewer than 136 suits may be modified and resubmitted for testing in order to be added to the approved list.
Little point in speculating, then, over what Rome will hold. We know that the Speedo LZR enhances performance and that suit will be in the water. There are those who now say "so what" and then wobble on about the thread of history being irrelevant and cite Mark Spitz, Johnny Weissmuller et al. What they don't do is talk about Popov, Van den Hoogenband, Jodie Henry and a generation of swimmers very much of the here and now but already of a bygone era. That's the point. The moment the LZR leapt off the blocks the sport of swimming changed nature. It will not return to where it was until the LZR and the like have gone. Yes, bodysuits from 2000 "helped", moving from nylon to lycra "helped" but nothing, absolutely nothing in swimming history comes close to what we have seen since February 2008. We are talking about a total transfiguration of the world rankings 300 deep, from a vast number of programmes and countries around the world.
For this summer, the LZR is unlikely to be out there alone. There is likely that modified versions of the Jaked01 (Jaked1.5 perhaps, or Jaked02), the arena X-Glide, among others, may yet make it into the race pool. All will have performance-enhancing properties of one kind or another. All we know is that the world championships in Rome, if a bylaw outlawing all the post Feb-2008 boosters is not enforced for the eight days of the world championships, will unfold without anyone truly knowing who is helped more or less by the suits, depending on morphology and physiology, which suits are better for which distance and what we might have witnessed in a fairer arena.
It is an arena that will stage the world's most prestigious swim event beyond the Olympic Games, one that will unfold without the blueseventy suit that accounts for a tidal wave of entries on the all-time world ranking lists. Blueseventy has put out its own explanations and views on what happened yesterday. Given that 2010 is not far away and the maker of wet suits has seen the writing on the pool wall, it would probably make commercial sense for B70 to focus on the open water and triathlon markets rather than to try to muscle in on the "conventional" suits market. Not really an issue that interests me that much. All suit makers should be made welcome in the race pool provided that they stay the right side of a line that FINA is yet to draw.
Meantime, here are the records that are now in doubt, with the previous standard alongside, starting with world standards:
Among European records at stake are the medley standards of Hannah Miley (GBR) over 200m and 400m and the 200m by Camille Muffat (FRA), all three races employing the Jaked01. In Brazil, there were too many South American records to mention that would be affected, most of them eeked out by swimmers in a Jaked01.
National records galore have been set in the Jaked01, arena X-Glide and Blueseventy suits in nations as diverse as Brazil, Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain (a fair few there), France, Russian nationals, while in Japan, almost all new records were set using a suit that no-one had ever heard of and a suit that remains a mystery in terms of whether it did or did not make the approved list. Descente suits are listed as Jan09 and Mar09 etc, and not by name of model. Where the arena/descente collaborative "Rubber" fits into the picture is unclear.
FINA needs to clarify such matters with immediate effect. There is little point in imposing a new regime if the suits approved and not cannot be identified by the world swimming community, let alone the judges who must judge. Rome 2009 will have a tagging system, but not so myriad others events around the world at which records may yet be set, standards upon which seedings will be decided.
The phased solution to the FINA overpriced-fast-and-fragile suits crisis, designed to allow the independent testers to learn on the job and to appease at least some suit makers (many believe just the one suit maker) was always going to come at a price. The question this summer will be: who will pay that price? And the second question this summer is: will FINA make it clear as soon as possible, at the latest by the time we leave Rome, what January 1, 2010 holds - with a confirmation that all of the problems of 2008 will have been washed away with the problems of 2009? There is good reason to be hopeful, good reason to think that FINA is going to deliver swimming back to its soul, performance back to swimmers and coaches and not suits. At that point, those who have worked with their sleeves rolled up will have a right to stand with head held high.
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