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Stop The Runaway Train

Dec 31, 2009  - Forbes Carlile

Guest writer and veteran coach to generations of Australian swimmers, Forbes Carlile highlights the inconsistency in a rule that prohibits anything that "may aid" performance and a regime that allows it

Editorial: 

On January 1, 2010, swimming lurches into its ill-considered plan to solve the fast swim suit dis-order of the last two years. They  have approved  suits which will only partially "minimise" material over the body, thereby leaving the expansive thigh area covered.

Unless the aim was to placate the manufacturers, the 2010 suits regime was at best irrational and fell shy of the intentions of those who drove the motion at the July 2009 Congress: to remove performance-enhancement in suits. The Congress resolved vigorously to make changes which returned swimming to a level playing field (pool) for all competitors.  There was no specific discussion regarding swim-suit coverage to the knees or hips.  But, while partial measures were taken to minimise body coverage by swim-suits, suits were allowed to the knees without any discussion or mention.  This failed to recognise that material covering the thigh area violates the ‘may aid performance’ provision of Rule SW10.7; to which nearly all the swimming community has given lip service.


The FINA rule means exactly what it says - anything that ‘may aid performance’,  must be closely monitored under this rule; and must be prohibited.  Clearly, it is not  a matter of having to prove that suits over the thighs do not aid performance  but, as the rule clearly states, ‘may aid performance’.  USA Swimming, early in 2009, rightly made a strong recommendation for radical changes. Central to their  demands was the call to minimise material from the whole of the body.  

Material was to be taken away from the back (recommending open back and no zippers), and from the arms, legs and thighs. It was argued that covering these areas was unnecessary to satisfy the demands of modesty, the reason for wearing suits at all; and would greatly lessen the chances for the presence of performance aids in suits. This was plain common sense.  Therefore, it is disappointing and somewhat of a mystery as to why the large thigh area was not raised by the Americans, or anybody else, when the matter was debated.
 The question  is: WHY was this  excellent idea of material minimization significantly diluted and  partially abandoned  when deciding matters of body cover?  Apart from extra material, which potentially could be ‘exploited’, could it  have  something to do with manufactures' profits because using more material permits higher price? It could also form the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ if manufacturers push for unisex suits and cover the male chest/back areas.


The spirit of the Congress was overwhelmingly to do away with anything in swim wear which even ‘may aid performance’ beyond  technology seen up to, and including, 2007.  It is true that there were no complaints about  using  Lycra and other fabrics which appeared from the 1990s. Setting 2007 as a bench mark level of  ‘performance’ technology is sensible because  it was not until 2008 that the avalanche of clearly assisted world records began.  This, I believe, well answers "the "Lycra being an aid" debating point.



Following the launch of the Speedo LZR in February 2008,  buoyant neoprene and polyurethane suits also appeared.  These arrived into competition by stealth because of inadequate or no testing; and, since then, championship swimming has become an equipment-based farce.

 As well as demonstrating inept control  from the start of the fast-suit saga,  FINA made the incredible claim that Rule SW 10.7 did not apply to swim wear. Sadly, there are still many in the swimming community who are content  for FINA to have a Science Commission.  However, these scientists did not make the rules, but merely are asked to apply and monitor the pre-determined rules as a "half-way" solution. 

FINA believes that this will prevent  further disarray; and the swimming world has put its faith totally and absolutely in this group of people working where science can be several shades of grey.  It also means that the swimming world believes the problem will now go away and no longer be of any concern to them.  

The above assertion is that "FINA has gone far enough", is heard. However,
 FINA has dangerously stopped short of making the right decision. 
With the unnecessary covering of the thighs, there are more opportunities of finding loop-holes for introducing performance aids.  In turn, this leads to more problems, escalated conflict, and a loss of integrity and credibility for competitive swimming. 


After strong marketing, the barely escapable perception for many at the pool is   that, "to be competitive", the expensive new generation suits for swimmers at all levels must be worn.  Swimmers, usually via parents, are being cajoled through extensive promotions to purchase expensive, new-era, fast suits which can only be worn a small number of times.  We read of the Speedo LZR which has been resurrected and,  doubtless is a "purified" LZR.  Also, what about the Racer Elite Record Breaker Kneeskin?(presumably  this is not  some sort of a  joke); and has a listed price of $AUD500 for females, and $AUD300 for men and boys.   No mention is made as to whether  the cost is the same for smaller age-groupers. 

But, we are assured that the suits are "FINA and Swimming Australia approved." Hence, if the FINA Scientific Commission has done its work successfully, that should be  testifying that the suits do not aid performance!  A perusal of the advertising blurbs suggests that the scientists have it wrong; or maybe it is false advertising because the suits do not aid performance as the ads describe?


But, parents purchase the new-era suits in case there might be some improved performance and they do not want their children to feel any form of barriers in their swimming races.  Buying such suits would have cost four or five times that of brief suits constructed of approved porous textiles, and used up to 2007.

 Thus, it is my considered opinion that we have an inadequate and incomplete solution.  No stone should be left unturned  to cure  the swim suit "disease" FINA was finally forced, reluctantly, to acknowledge. The remedy presented to date by our International governing body cannot be certain to restore health and well-being to the sport of swimming.

 So, to those FINA supporters around the pool deck who say, "They have gone far enough", I say, please do not relax your vigilance.  For, I fear, they have not!

FINA has gone as far as it has, only because it was forced to do so by a very vehement Congress.  Knee-length suits were a compromise from suits to the ankles, for which the manufacturers have fiercely been lobbying. Even though the material is now mandated to be "porous "textile", there remains continuing doubt and conjecture, with  good reason, that difficult-to-detect performance enhancing features could be integrated into the swim suit.  


The potential impact of covering the large thigh area becomes apparent as  it exceeds by about three times the total area of the rest of the suit for males, and about twice the total area of the rest of the suit for females. 

It is extremely disappointing that stronger measures were not implemented to regain the health and well being in our very important sport of swimming when the opportunity presented itself at Congress.  

The "will of the people" was obvious to all but clever manipulations have rendered some of the swimming world complacent by assurances of a solution that is, at best, partial; and probably not possible.  Thus, the manufacturer induced "sickness" in the sport is likely to continue, leaving festering doubt and conjecture among competitive swimmers at all levels from novice to elite.  Many will be hunting for the suit just in case it might  help gain an advantage of fractions of a second. At the elite level, that could mean many thousands of dollars.



At this point in time, no one   can accurately quantify the  performance contribution of thigh cover.  Counting up records created when a swimmer wears a particular manufacturer's suit may be a good advertising gimmick, but  does not demonstrate the scientific rigour and evidence needed to determine the truth of the matter.  We could be talking about small differences between a number of  factors that can influence statistical probabilities and analyses.  

Suits covering the large thigh area provide opportunities for manufacturers to bend the rules.  Thus, the way to diminish the risk of unfairness is to do away with all thigh cover and, certainly, never ever consider allowing male suits to cover the torso.



However, the toll of midnight on December 31, will be the potential symbolic starting signal for a new degrading hunt for the fastest suit by many, even though a time drop of up to as much as  5%, even up to 2% with the LZR (and as much or more with the 100% poly suits that followed, the percentage differing from swimmer to swimmer and stroke to stroke and distance to distance) will be a memory of the past.

There needs to be a wider interpretation of what Congress actually wanted rather than just regurgitate the humbug and hypocrisy of their current interpretation of the statement "the Congress has spoken."



Will  coaches, swimmers, parents, federations and those at the administrative grass roots level of the sport protest long and loud at what FINA has, and has not, done in an attempt to stop this runaway train?



It is the bounden duty of FINA, as the "custodians" of the sport, to recognise the obvious and incongruous error of the Congress's incomplete and ill-considered decision. They must review the situation regarding this matter and reconfigure their interpretation of what the swimming world wanted.  

Currently, FINA has majority contact with manufacturers and that influences their thinking.  They need to bite the bullet and prioritise their client base - swimmers - despite anticipated laments and possible threats from  manufacturers.  The Bureau  needs to make the changes necessary to rescue the sport and leave nothing to chance.
 
The major change, to be made effective as soon as practical, requires that the Bureau invokes its power of review and constitutional right to change by-law provisions concerning swim wear.  


If right and reason are to dictate the actions of FINA, coverage of the thighs will be prohibited for both males and females, and approval only be granted via the rules to cover the minimum body areas with brief suits maintaining decency and propriety of the privacy areas.