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Suit Wars: Issues Of Science And Progress II

Oct 19, 2009  - Craig Lord

Editorial: A year ago today, SwimNews launched suit week and debate about race apparel raged. We all know what it came down to: suits that enhance performance altered the nature of the sport, switching the emphasis of swimming from a technique-based sport to an equipment-based sport that favoured some morphologies and physiologies over others and reduced the importance of core work and strength and natural and honed body position in water. The world rankings took a hammering, the thread to history was shredded.

By July, the wider world of swimming agreed, via much upset indeed for all concerned, with the central thrust of those who campaigned to rid swimming of suits that overshadowed the achievements of swimmers and tore the thread of history that is so important to measuring the worth and significance of performance. 

No fewer than 168 nations of FINA voted to get rid of bodysuits and ban the use of non-textiles back in Rome on the eve of the world championships. Case closed? No, not quite. For the more significant voted, for the longer term interests of swimming, was that which tweaked the wording of Rule SW10.7: namely that no swim suit or device (suit specifically named for the first time) may aid speed, buoyancy or endurance. 

As the world of swimming waved goodbye to Rome, key figures in, and connected to, FINA attempted to have the Congress vote on suit profiles overturned. FINA nations voted overwhelmingly in favour of a limitation in material cover as follows:

  • Men: waist to a cut above the knee
  • Women: shoulder straps to a cut above the knee (no fasteners or zippers allowed, going part way to removing the effects of compression - for now)

What Britain, Australia and Italy argued, on behalf of their suit sponsors, was that men and women should be equal. Their argument was redundant: men do not have breasts. Men have long raced in a cut apart from that of women because of the natural difference between the sexes. Men do not need to cover their chests. More material cover equals greater potential for performance enhancement in suits that will be forbidden from January 1, 2010.

Suit profile remains the outstanding issue of suit wars. The equality argument is so weak as to be hardly worth contemplating - and FINA, having just made up its mind, would be most unwise to heed the voices that urge it to go back down the path of performance enhancement, potential or real.

But one debate on profile is certainly worth a further look. Indeed, it is essential that the FINA Panel of Experts hired to ensure that Rule SW10.7 is upheld must surely make the outstanding issue a matter of priority. Technological advances wait for no man and what may be considered a problem tomorrow was surely in our midst yesterday, as the past two seasons have shown us.

Here is the issue: why have material cover over the thighs? Why allow jammers down to knee? Why not place a restriction that allows "shorts" but does not anchor the two most critical "parts of the human body", parts crucial to questions of core strength, stability of the swimmer and natural or honed position in the water (the very issue at the heart of the shiny suits crisis).

The following five points have been put to FINA by Forbes Carlile, thorn in the side of all those who would wish to stifle debate on issues that are perceived to be a threat to commercial interests (note, not a threat to the interests of swimming as a sport and of swimmers and coaches and the work they do).

For briefs, read any suit that covers hips and can extend down from the groin (Daniel Craig style) but cannot cover the whole thigh:

  • 1. The  FINA rule SW10.7 states that any equipment including suits which “may aid” performance are prohibited. Thus even a reasonable likelihood of performance enhancement contravenes the rule. Clearly the larger the area of the suit, the greater the possibility of performance enhancement. 
  • 2.  It is indeed hard to imagine a logical reason other than possible performance enhancement that would explain why swimmers would want to pay more  and cover more than modesty requires. Arguments that suggest that swimmers object to brief suits for modesty, fashion or any other  reasons are quickly dismissed with the observation that swimmers wear brief suits in training.
  • 3.  While it is unavoidable that women will need to have more of their body covered by material (on the torso), the thigh area is arguably a more attractive target for performance enhancement (e.g. flotation) because of its very significant role in body alignment and therefore reduction of resistance. In any case, it is not a sound argument to suggest that just because there is greater potential for abuse of the rule in women’s suits, that coverage for men should be increased unnecessarily above the waist.
  • 4. The less the coverage the less the motivation swim suit manufacturers will have to investigate new materials or technology that is within the current rules but nevertheless performance-enhancing.
  • 5. Any testing and approval regime is expensive, time consuming and inevitably less than perfect. Together with point four above, this means the less the coverage the less testing and approval will be required and the less the expense and potential difficulties.

The debate is open. It is now for the FINA panel of experts to tell us all that extending material over the thigh will not break the rule and the spirit of the rule which states that no swim suit "may aid speed buoyancy or endurance". They will doubtless keep in mind that there are experts out there who are already saying that textile as defined by FINA and thigh cover will allow performance enhancement. 

Among those who note the logical conclusion of the newly worded Rule Sw10.7 is Dr. Brent Rushall (check out the splendid photo of a line-up of heroes back in the summer in the US) Professor Emeritus at  the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, San Diego State University. He has long put forward sound arguments on issues of porosity and absorption. There are good reasons why suits should not be surfboards, why they should do their work in water, not on it, so to speak. And now there is a rule that says that suits must definitely not be engineered for speed, buoyancy or endurance. Gone, then, are the days when suit makers can boast "the fastest suit in the world", etc., for if there is such a thing, it would not be permitted in the race pool. That is the will of FINA members.

The leap from shiny suits to what will come into play on New Year's Day was substantial enough to make most believe that the case was closed. Certainly, January 1 will bring a much, much, much better day. But the whole point of the FINA panel of experts is to ensure constant monitoring of developments in the worlds of textiles and engineering to ensure that when the world gathers for racing at Shanghai 2011 and London 2012, no-one could possibly call into question any performance because of a suit.

Issues of science and progress are with us always. If the experts say that thigh cover is a problem (and some already do), it is then for FINA to pay heed and act - immediately. There is now provision in the new FINA rule book to do just that. We will watch developments with interest at the start of an era in which storm-warnings are supposedly part of FINA culture.