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Suits: An 11th-Hr Appeal For No Thigh Cover

Oct 29, 2009  - Forbes Carlile

Guest writer and veteran Aussie swim guru argues the case for removing the last chance for textile engineering of suits to enhance performance 

This is an 11th-hour appeal for Swimming Australia together with other federations, administrators and coaches to look squarely at the suit profile issue and make urgent and strong representations to FINA to see reason regarding the profiles planned for competition suits from 1 January 2010.

Not everybody may be fully aware of the recent troubled history of suits, which stretches back to when long suits were first introduced before the 1996 Olympic Games. However I have no intention of restating it all here; it will suffice if I try to impress upon all that permitting suits that cover the thighs may well lead us back down the disastrous path swimming has been on for the last two years. 

It should be recognised that the overwhelming decision of the FINA Congress in Rome in July 2009 to return to entirely textile, porous suits with open backs for women, no cover of the torso for males, and no cover of the shoulders and arms for either, represented an important victory for common sense and a big step towards returning swimming to a training and technique-based sport. But this ‘victory’ was incomplete, and it is this incompleteness which is posing a continued threat to the future well-being of competitive swimming.  

Given that the rules now unequivocally state that nothing may aid speed, buoyancy and endurance, the new rules regarding suit profiles have not gone far enough, and will inevitably result in the use of suits that do enhance performance. Only suits that do not cover the thighs (‘brief suits’) for both men and women should be allowed.


The reasons why only brief suits should be permitted in all swimming competitions after 1 January 2010 are as follows:

1.  Thigh coverage not only may, but can only be seen as very likely to aid performance.

The Congress-affirmed FINA Rule SW10.7 specifies that suits which “may aid” performance are prohibited. Thus even the reasonable likelihood of performance enhancement contravenes the rule. Clearly the larger the area of the body the suit covers, the greater the possibility of performance enhancement.  

Even before 2008 the suit manufacturers themselves claimed that textile, porous suits to the knees aided performance, and it is hard to imagine a reason other than likely performance enhancement that would explain why swimmers would want to cover more than modesty requires and pay more to do so. (Arguments suggesting that swimmers object to brief suits modesty, fashion or other reasons are quickly dismissed with the observation that by and large swimmers wear these suits in training).

So the manufacturers and the swimmers believe material around the thighs will help them, yet the rules prohibit it! 

Can anyone conclude with certainty that suits that cover the thighs may not provide performance enhancement?

2.  The thighs are a focus for performance enhancement

The extensive thigh area is a very attractive target for performance enhancement because of its very significant role in contributing to the angle of buoyancy and therefore the reduction of resistance. Even very small and scientifically-undetectable changes in body alignment can cause significant performance enhancement.

With brief suits the swim-suit manufacturers will be less motivated to find loopholes by investigating new materials or technology that appears to be within the current rules but subsequently proves to be performance-enhancing. 

Subtle changes in fibre and other characteristics, which embedded in the material would be difficult to detect, may enhance performance.  There may also be other qualities, so far not surprisingly rumoured in the scientific literature as commercial secrets, that it may be possible to embed in the material as a means of interaction with the physiology of the swimmer.

Does the sport want to go through the agony of wrestling with these possibilities? With brief suits this is far less likely to happen.

3.  Difficulties with any testing, approval and monitoring regimes

Any testing, approval and monitoring regime will be time-consuming, very expensive and inevitably less-than-perfect. Together with point 2 above, this means the less the coverage, the less extensive the testing and monitoring is likely to be, and the less the opportunity for mistakes and malpractice. 

Surely it will be well-nigh impossible to identify, test and monitor all possible variables that may result in suits covering the thighs being performance-enhancing. 


It is not difficult to understand why administrators will not look beyond the decision to cover the thighs and are prepared to go along with the false notion that Congress has spoken irrevocably.

Although a number of elite swimmers had been reported as saying they would be happy to race in brief suits, those at Congress who put the motion for change, the Americans, did not know the strength and resolve the federations would demonstrate in their demands.   

This was a rare exhibition of democracy in unprecedented defiance of the expressed wishes of the FINA Executive. The movers for change had understandably ‘played it safe’. Despite US Swimming earlier in the year recommending to FINA that it approve all possible minimisation of suit material, no risk could be taken for rebuttal of the broader principle. In the hurly-burly of Congress, at that point it seemed expedient not to make a pitch for brief suits, which they believed may have seemed too radical for many. So the American delegates put forward the compromise of suits to the knees, not to the ankles and shoulders for males that manufacturers were, not surprisingly, furiously lobbying for. As it turned out, from the huge majority vote of 168 to 7 it can be safely concluded that brief suits would have been accepted, especially if the meeting had heard all the reasons for this.

Very clearly it was ‘by default’ that Congress arrived at the decision to allow the thighs to be covered. 


Some argue that if the suits to the knees (and beyond) that were used in 2007 were acceptable in 2007 they should be acceptable now.
The work of Dr Joel Stager (Indiana University) has been cited as supporting this view - that those suits did not make any difference. Dr. Stager showed that the average times of those in Olympic finals, 1996, 2000 and 2004 were highly predicable on the basis of previous Olympic results (but not for 2008 of course!)

But Dr Stager's results reflected the combined effect of the porous textiles and the length of the suits, so from these data there is no way of knowing whether one or the other aided or inhibited performance. Thus the overall nil effect can logically be explained by one factor cancelling out the beneficial effect of the other.

Also there would appear to be strong empirical evidence that suits to the knees and beyond have helped some individuals by compressing tissue and correcting alignment of the body by ”pulling in the flab".

Some say that there is no point challenging the Congress decision and there is no great rush to find the optimal solution. However by delaying action and so promoting the need for suits to the knees as a fashion statement, the situation will fester and prove increasingly difficult to unscramble. Ancient wisdom says: “You cannot cross a chasm in two jumps”


If it is concluded by the FINA Scientific Commission on 23/24 November, after thoroughly probing the situation, that suits with thigh coverage may aid performance with or even without detection, the Commission would have a duty and obligation to recommend to the FINA Bureau that thigh cover not be approved. 

It is within the Bureau’s power to immediately implement such a recommendation, because the planned suit profiles appear in a by-law that the Bureau on its own can resolve to change.

It is the responsibility of all in the swimming community to ensure that FINA are encouraged to see the truth of this issue and change the by-laws accordingly.