In The Depths
As swimmers return to the fray on world cup tour in the wake of the first Olympic Games since the ban on shiny suits from January 1, 2010, the executive director of FINA has stoked the flames of history. In an interview with a Arabian publication, Cornel Marculescu suggests that the race apparel that the international federation's Congress voted overwhelmingly to sink made little difference to the sport, controversy a media manipulation.
When asked by Doha-based media 'Did the sport lose credibility over its swimsuit controversies?', the director is reported to have replied: "Personally, I don’t think so. I feel the media manipulated the issue to make it sound too controversial. Does anyone know the amount of training each high-performance swimmer undergo? It’s almost 15 to 20km every day throughout his/her career. When you train so much, how much difference can a specific model of swimsuit make? If I wear such a swimsuit, can you expect me to break world records? I don’t think so. One shouldn’t dismiss the amount of hard work each swimmer puts in.
"Several people said world records set using the controversial swimsuits couldn’t be broken for a long time. But in London, nine world and 25 Olympic records were set. It just means one thing - swimmers world over are evolving fast. They’re getting better trained to set excellent times."
The director is, of course, welcome to his opinion and his opinion carries weight. The facts of the matter are something else.
"…When you train so much, how much difference can a specific model of swimsuit make?" asks the director. Answer: a hugely significant amount, the difference not only affecting the speed of swimmers but altering the finishing order of races, results skewed by the very difference the suits made to different swimmers."
For understanding, the director would need to talk to his suit-checking experts, the folk who confirmed there was a big problem; FINA's coaching commission; to those who lead USA Swimming, the world's dominant aquatic force; to Milt Nelms and others experts who could fill FINA in on the detail of what went wrong when three men decided that - with no science, no testing, no parameters, no reference to Bureau or Congress, no thought to consequence - something called a LZR Racer should get a thumbs up.
The FINA director, who has done so much to promote swimming and take the sport to higher levels of funding and status, was simply on the wrong side of the coin in Rome and appears to still harbour some of the views that got the sport into hot water. When records fell in London, he joked: "See, I win."
Actually, swimmers, coaches, the sport of swimming, the manufacturers who could never have sustained the costs of what might be described as the 'fake equality' of having to hand out suits (many of them popping to the sound of dollars being flushed down the drain) free to all in Rome 2009 - and the director - won on January 1, 2010: the moment the suits were banned.
Here is why the question "how much difference can a specific model of swimsuit make?" deserves a sledgehammer:
Beyond noting that most of the records set in 2008 and 2009 survive and many will be there for quite a while yet, global standards can be largely set aside as representing a surface view.
Deeper understanding lies in the depths of world rankings swamped in the stuff of 2008 and even more so 2009. Three years (one Olympic Games, one long- and one short-course world championship in the mix) beyond the ban on shiny suits, the picture looks like this (the women's stats are still weighted by performances from the 1980s and 1990s, when doping programmes in the GDR and then China, skewed history):
Figures relate to the world rankings - top 25 all-time performers (the deeper you go the murkier the picture):
Looking back at previous Olympic cycles, we can compare the impact of a two-year period that included an Olympic Games (2000) and world championships (2001) in relationship to an all-time list up to the following Olympic Games (2004) - in other words a direct comparable period in the swimming cycle to 2008-2012. The telling figures are percentages of swims from 2000 and 2001 that made it into the top 25 by the end of 2004:
A trawl through historic Olympic cycles back to 1980 reveals similar figures.
Now compare those figures to the 2008-2012 cycle:
No fewer than 20 men and 29 women who made the Rome 2009 world-titles podium did not make it to the London 2012 podium; 13 of those who set world records in Rome 2009 were unable to make the Olympic podium three years on; three who set world records did not make their domestic Olympic teams.
Statistically, the significance of the shiny suits and their impact on the sport of swimming is vast. Indeed, as many pointed out at the time, the sport of swimming as we knew it and now know it again, was sunk. It would have died never to be resurrected had it not been for the FINA Congress vote that overwhelmingly backed a US-led proposal to return the sport to its nature and to swimmers.
An equivalent snap of the short-course pool 2008-2012:
The suits were not controversial because the media (or anyone else) manipulated the situation. They were controversial because they killed swimming - a sport revived by the sensible decision of FINA Congress in 2009.
The sport of swimming is wise to continue to monitor the specifications of suits: neither the race environment nor the equipment needed for racing (suits, blocks, lane ropes etc) should provide anything other than a level-playing field for all.
If the issue of suits was largely resolved in 2009/2010, issues remain - and that will always be the case in a system (as with anti-doping) that requires constant checks and balances.
A healthy state for the sport is one in which debate takes place, issues considered and sensible solutions arrived at by a majority that keeps in mind the unique qualities of the sport, qualities that make swimming so much more interesting than the impostor of 2008-09.
Legendary Australian coach Forbes Carlile has spent a lifetime reminding authorities that they may not have got it right. His latest missive on suits urges FINA to consider revisiting its rules on race apparel to tighten the performance-enhancement hatch still further and avoid straying into more body cover at a time when some still seem to think that men have breasts.
Flotation and drag effect of material were factors then [at a time of shiny suits], - THEY STILL ARE, of course, present to a lesser degree, affecting performance.
Therefore, for suit approval, both flotation and surface drag resistance should be accurately measured and monitored when used in competition.
The banning of the "shiny" suits was forced on FINA when it became obvious that the particular non-textile, obviously non-porous suits resulted in improved performance because of increased buoyancy AND lowered surface resistance. Good, peer-reviewed scientific research reports both these effects of the suits that were banned January 1st 2010.
The rules go into great detail regarding “porosity” and buoyancy but there is not a word regarding drag resistance of suit material. Both affecting performance simple logic demands that both these characteristics of suits need to be recognised and accounted for in rules governing "fair" suits.
The rules covering buoyancy are flawed because, well inside a minute, the time within which sprint races are completed, the highest buoyancy effect can be measured in a number of FINA-approved suits but under present testing rules NO mention is made of the test taking this into consideration.
Suit buoyancy can be shown to increase, rapidly, with time. This may explain why sprint times have been relatively more affected by the wearing the shiny suits than in distance events.
Policing of suit rules is inadequate … although prohibited, a simple application of an invisible, "soft" to feel, virtually undetectable anti-wetting agent will increase buoyancy - and can be applied after the FINA badge of compliance has been attached. Present rules do not adequately address this situation.
If it is claimed that testing control is reckoned impractical, is serious consideration being given to revoking the incongruous decision which has permitted material to cover the extensive thigh area, giving much more opportunity for cheating action?
Minimisation of cover of the body will clearly diminish serious attempts to attain the nearly unanimous conclusion of the 2009 Congress that swim suit equipment should not enhance swimmer performance.
If and how FINA deals with the above questions will reflect how seriously it regards its charter to maintain the credibility and integrity of the sport.