Connect with Us:  

Unsuited For Swimming

Dec 4, 2008  - Craig Lord

A meeting will take place in Lausanne in February that will contribute significantly to the future direction of swimming. Sound minds will be present, so too will be people who show us why the current chaos in the sport must be sunk without trace

In late February, FINA will sit down at its HQ in Lausanne, Switzerland, with no fewer than 21 suit makers, according to the word that reaches me from a world that faces having to cut its cloth to suit a changing marketplace. That many? 21? I dug out an old box of swim papers that proved to be not quite past their sell-by date just yet: only a few years ago, the number of race-suit makers invited to the FINA table was 9. Just two years ago, the international federation would have struggled to get 12 to show up to a party. Now there are 21, according to a list of the invited sent to me by an industry source.

More competition equals more of everything, say some: more money, more opportunity, more diversity, and so forth. More chaos, too. More scope for the sport of swimming to fall under the influence of people who clearly have not understood the serious concerns of coaches, parents and the silent but significant numbers of swimmers who feel torn in two in a world where not to have the latest aid to speed, buoyancy and endurance spells defeat, in heart, mind and water.

Before we take a look at a sprinkling of evidence, let's be clear. The swimming world now KNOWS that Speedo developed a product that enhances performance, it made no bones about that despite the protestations to the contrary or silence of the federations, international and domestic, and swimmers and coaches on its payroll or kit handout list. We also know that FINA, probably inadvertently but hardly innocently in terms of the financial carrots on offer, opened the flood gates to a whole genre of "devices" now being worn by swimmers because of the approval of the LZR Racer. So much for how it all began.

The phrase I used above - "more scope for the sport of swimming to fall under the influence of people who clearly have not understood the serious concerns of..." - is not, however, aimed at Speedo, nor Arena, nor adidas nor   most of those who were players in the pre-2000 era. Those companies have long understood the relationship of trust and faith between their commercial means and ends and the traditions and values of an entire sport (as opposed to just the people who sign on the dotted line or wear a garment because they believe it can truly help deliver a beyond-expectation result).

Some of those who will sit at the FINA table in February clearly do not have the same understanding. This little gem blew in on a breeze east of Europe from the cutting edge of the sport:

In a note to FINA, Marcin Sochacki, CEO, Rocket Science Sports, writes: "If the purists of this sport really want this to be man to man, then everyone should be on the exact same sleep schedule, nutrition plan/products and be set up to compete against others with the exact same hand size, lung capacity, arm and leg length including hight etc. Even then, someone is still going to have some sort of advantage however slight it might be. Where will the line be drawn in that direction?"

Silly man. Purists of the sport? He obviously does not count himself as one of those. Comparing a suit, an artificial aid - a performance-enhancing bodysuit worn by this generation that sits on the tip of the iceberg of great swimming history - to sleep patterns, nutrition, lung capacity, height, length of leg and arm? Is he mad, is he blind? Can he not see the difference? Was an arm and a leg made in a factory? Was Grant Hackett's lung capacity granted to him by his mum and dad and developed by the work of Denis Cotterell, or by a seamstress on a bagpipes production line? Was the sleep pattern of Michael Phelps granted to him by nature, nurture and conditioning over many years, influenced by a course set by Debbie Phelps and Bob Bowman - or was Superfish moulded from the slime that gave rise to Tolkien's most fearsome creations? We all know the answers. But not, apparently, Mr Sochacki. Here’s a man who, according to his own words, finds it hard to distinguish between nature, nurture and an aquatic Zimmer frame.

Plenty of room, of course, for artificial aids in life, in health, in righting what nature, from one point of view, got "wrong". Cures for the sick, props for the ailing and all of that. Very worthy stuff, for which we're all most grateful. Such things have NO PLACE in world-class sport. Goggles were the biggest single artificial aid ever introduced to swimming, some note. A worthy observation. Underwater vision in racing arrived officially in the mid-1970s, while photos of swimmers from the 1940s (the earliest I know of) to Debbie Meyer in the mid-1960s looking like visitors from Mars in diving masks and goggles confirm the march to visibility in water. Goggles help swimmers to see, to see walls, to see where they're going, help them to stay safe. Records fell as a result. But goggles were not specifically designed to take you to a place that your body would not otherwise be able to go, not designed to boost speed by - get this from Rocket - 6sec every 100m.

And where did that juicy stat come from? Ah, explains Mr Sochacki to FINA, it was a triathlete (not a swimmer, not a man the sport of swimming would ever call a swimmer in the sense we call Stefan Nystrand a swimmer, in the sense we call Brent Hayden a swimmer, in the sense we call Eamon Sullivan a swimmer). The triathlete, apparently improved 6sec per 100m in a 1,500m stretch of water in a triathlon somewhere, some place, some time. Who cares.

My sister taught a group of triathletes to swim faster not long ago. She had one man that would blow Mr Sochacki's heroic example out of the water with an atomic bomb and a following wind. My sibling was happy for her pupil, her pupil happy with his guide and gain. He was not, of course, in any sense what my sister, a 61sec 100m 'flyer in the early 80s, would call an elite swimmer. Rocket's example should never have been allowed to make its way into a sport where the parents of children are now scouring websites to seek the next suit that can deliver a best time.

The Rocket was put through its paces in a German triathlon website, and this is what they found: 

  • In normal trunks: average 16 to 17 strokes per 25m freestyle
  • With Rocket's Speedsuit (shorts and arms): 14 to 15 strokes
  • With Rocket's Skin Speedsuit: 13 to 14 strokes
  • With Neoprene suit: 11.5 to 13 strokes. 

The site recommends "equivalent alternatives" to Rocket: xterra Velocity Longleg, the Blueseventy Pointzero3+ and the Zoot Speedzoot 20. Hands up those chief judges around the world - no peeking now ... right, take the blindfold off - who would recognise any of those outfits and brands in a line-up of eight good men or women?

FINA does not publish a list of approved suits. Imagine that! How are federations and swimmers - let alone coaches, parents and other guardians - supposed to make an informed choice about what their kid should wear if no-one bothers to tell them what's in and what's not? FINA learned the lesson of transparency amid the China doping crisis. It started to publish the details - names and all - of testing, who was tested when, who fell foul and why, the deliberations of the court of arbitration, and so on and so forth. Surely a list of suits for this lot, all invited to the February bash, would not be too difficult to draw up. Let the light in.

Darkness is what we have right now. The situation is out of control. At the February meeting, FINA has a chance to regain control. It must act on two fronts: stop the performance-enhancement, the aid to speed, buoyancy and endurance (already against the rules in a world where the suit is clearly a device), and stop the ludicrous claims to performance that stray well beyond those that FINA must pay heed too because they are true, the claims of Speedo, for example.

Much will be made of buoyancy at the February meeting. Confusion reigns, even among suit makers, who admit that a test for buoyancy is far from being meaningful, who admit that thickness of suit is a red herring in an era of nano-technology that delivers in 1mm what would once have taken 5mm to achieve. In such an environment, how is FINA's approvals process to be taken seriously? Take the following response to Slovenian coach Dimitrij Mancevic PhD from Blueseventy after SwimNews published Dr Mancevic's letter querying the suit makers pool products:

Steve Nicholls, from Blueseventy, writes: "Our suit has been extensively tested for buoyancy, and we have been thorough in receiving the FINA testing for all our suits, form the pointzero3, and 10k (open water suits) through to the comp (pool version). None of which have tested buoyant, and all of which were processed by FINA". Right. All well then, we take it.

Here's Dr Mancevic's answer:

Dear Mr. Steve Nicholls,

I appreciate your letter and I would like to make my position very clear: I don’t think that your company made the mistake putting NERO COMP swimsuit to the swimming (pool) market. You are a businessman and your main goal is profit. You are doing an absolutely legal business.

As a coach I have to know that I am doing all that is possible for my swimmer who is going to be the first swimmer in the world with 9 consecutive wins in the same event. For achieving this goal we put too much energy and denial, and I won’t allow somebody to make the “curve” and pass us wearing the swimsuit which is changing swimmer’s buoyancy. I don’t know if I’ll able to do that but I will use all my forces for that.

You told me that “none of suits have tested buoyant, and all of which were processed by FINA”. But I did not see and hear any swimmer who swam wearing your Nero Comp suit, who did not say, that your swimsuit did not change their body buoyancy and body position. In contrast, they told me that their body position was higher as ever in the water.

I have a few questions. Could you answer me, please?

1. Neoprene is a well known material, which has a lot of characteristic for supporting human body in the water. One of them is buoyancy. If the NERO COMP swimsuit consists of Neoprene, how is it possible that NERO COMP swimsuit does not change swimmer’s buoyancy?

2. What difference is between swimsuit for pool Nero Comp and 10K for open swimming or triathlon?

3. Now your Nero Comp swimsuit is very popular in pool swimming. There is a lot of World and national records that were broken in the last month by swimmers who are wearing your Nero Camp suit. How can you explain this fact? Why swimmers are going faster as ever just wearing your suit 5 minutes before?

As a professional coach with many years of experiences, I know that maybe one swimmer didn’t recognize the change of his body position, but I don’t believe that hundreds and maybe thousands of swimmers around the world are ready to pay 400$ for a swimsuit which does not help them.

Let me stress one more time, I don’t think that it is your mistake. You are doing your business. I am thinking that it should be a mistake of FINA officials.

I am waiting your answers. Yours etc.

No reply as yet, but we'll let you know if and when we hear. Beyond the actual answers, the point of all this is: does swimming really need this kind of environment, where coaches, among others, have lost all confidence in the rule book to deliver a fair and level playing field? Answer: absolutely not.

Suit makers largely agree that it is almost impossible to test accurately for buoyancy and frame a one-rule-for-all across a diverse population of swimmers. Much more relevant than base buoyancy and thickness of suit is "systems (angle) buoyancy". For this, FINA needs to engage with some weighty sports scientists who can tell them why they KNOW that the current genre of bodysuits and even models that stop at the knee have swept some swimmers past rivals who under other circumstances would still be out in front. When science tells us such things, it must have a voice at the FINA table. Coaches are the most likely people to deliver that message to the international federation at gatherings scheduled for next month.

FINA will also look at issues of marketing and the heady claims being made. Perhaps it would be wise for FINA to hand to manufacturers the kind of responsibilities that are handed to swimmers and coaches through a system of having suit makers sign up to the rule book, sign up to independent lab testing, sign up to agreeing that no claims will be made beyond what an independent lab confirms. In essence, a greater onus of responsibility would pass to the suit maker. Get caught cheating and you're out. Gone, suspended, license revoked. Too far fetched? It's what swimmers and coaches sign up to when it comes to doping and other aspects of the rule book. Such a move might well also remove the desire to make ever-greater claims to speed and bullet-like performance.

It is not only perception of suit makers that has to be tackled though. It is the image of what the suit is clearly doing now. This from journalist Philip Hersh in the States: "You want to know just how much of a joke the space-age competition suits have made world records in swimming? You want to know why the Italian swim coach who called the suits "technological doping" was right? Just go to a study published Tuesday on sportscientists.com." He then trots out the following stats, among others, on "meaningless records":

  • The average lifespan of men's swimming world records before the 2008 Olympics was 680 days. That dropped to 382 days after the Olympics. There are now just three world records older than two years.
  • The average lifespan of women's world records prior to Beijing was 921 days. That dropped to 247 days. Only one world record is older than two years.

Hersh continues: "The sport's major powers, Australia and the United States, have realised what a farce this is and have called for bans on the suits that utterly transformed the sport." He notes the difficulty of banning suits in which so many records have been set, records that might stand for a long time if the swimmer is stripped of his techno-suit. However, he concludes: "That would be no more preposterous than the current situation, when swimming's records stand for nothing."

Similar views are now bubbling up from swimmers, coaches and others through various forums and less-visible campaigns beyond the public eye. This exchange on The Race Club forum typifies some of the issues now being washed back and forth in the debate.

One worthy scientific explanation concludes: "Simply add the language 'porous material' to the Fina Rule book on suits and it all goes away." In such a porous world, skin may well be the best option for the swimmer. There would still be a suit, a suit to be proud of, a suit that still sells, in abundance. Plenty of room for the "industry". More room for the swimmer, the talent, the hard work, the coach, the traditions of a sport that has much to fear from a future led by technology that will surely bring with it risk to health and provide another gateway to cheating.

Take this reaction from the parent of one of the world's leading swimmers to the latest rush on the world records books: "My first thought, and everyone's thought, when I hear of a world record of late is ‘what suit were they wearing?’  The answer is always the same ... if its [the Blueseventy] exposure as a ‘cheating’ device isn't successful all this press about it will certainly place it in high demand by anyone who wants to break through to the elite world of swimming.” The word cheating is what a fair few swimmers and coaches are now saying. Understandable. But thanks to FINA also inaccurate: the suit has been approved. Blueseventy has questions to answer but need not answer to the charge of cheating. It hasn’t done, according to FINA. A wave of opinion now says that the suit and those like it should not have been passed for the pool and should not survive the next round of approval renewals.

“Will it [soon] be time for asterisks? Either way, LZR or B70, it's definitely not what we all want to be talking about ... Suit manufacturers have a right to produce a suit that is better than the previous, but in more ways than just style, color, comfort and durability?" says the guardian of one of the most successful swimmers in the world right now. Drawing a line of acceptability was "where the leadership of the sport's governing body is vital to maintain the integrity of the sport," says the parent.

Integrity goes out the window where there is no rule to remove the fear voiced by Jacco Verhaeren this week, no rule to prevent swimmers wearing a Blueseventy under an LZR, as some did at US Olympic trials. This from one observer of events in Omaha when the two-suits trend, one not confined to the US, of course, was noticed: "This is no different than knowingly popping steroids. It's clear to these kids (and their parents) they have an advantage over their competitors. So much is at stake here and affects so many contingents."

When the suit makers gather at the FINA table in February with representative of the World Federation of Sports Goods Industry, the current guardians of the sport may wish to pay a nod of respect to the portraits that grace the boardroom walls. Presidents late and former would surely have a couple of cautionary words for those who followed them into the seat of swimming power: caveat emptor. Restricting design and fabric innovation too tightly is to be avoided like a buoyant suit, but the buying of the bodysuit culture and messages of entities who would lead the sport of swimming further down the slippery slope of shattered contracts, loss of faith, divorce, descent and on towards the bottomless pit of the doping suit would come at a very heavy price indeed. Many in swimming are now saying: no thank you.

If the views of many of the world's leading coaches and federations such as the USA (which will not lose its relationship with Speedo through all it is now campaigning for) find favour in FINA ears, the next step will be to call the pool police and ask the unwelcome stall holders to move on.

Hard - say some readers who favour a return to skin - to do that when those stall holders have been given a licence. Pity Rome, for it may be that, 15 years after China and FINA inaction heaped shame upon the world championships there, we must witness another circus, this time with performances enhanced and results distorted because of what swimmers are wearing rather than taking. The suit circus would be accompanied by another media circus like the one that dominated every farcical press conference back in 1994. But have faith. Stand firm. All of that can be avoided.

There are little more than 20 federations in the world who can expect to place swimmers on the podium at the splendid Foro Italico next July. Not beyond the bounds of those federations to legitimately say to their charges "make your choice from this stable of suit makers and cuts in the knowledge that 60 days after Rome we will live in a different world - so best prepare for it" (much like morning finals, semi-finals and all those other twists and turns, some more permanent than others, that the sport takes from time to time).

Arrangements between suit makers and federations would have to be reviewed a touch. If FINA votes for the proposal to cut back material and effectively ban the bodysuit, then suit makers  who have signed deals with federations - such a TYR Sport's link with the Danish Swimming Federation today - would have to reassess phrases such as that in the TYR deal that includes "TYR’s full range of technologically advanced swimming apparel and accessories". It would, of course, be a mere technicality for any partnership if a suit that was legal at the time of the deal became illegal during the deal. FINA rules govern its members, contracts and all. Best for everyone to understand that. It is already written in the FINA constitution.

As for FINA, there is no legal impediment to stop FINA enforcing its approvals contracts. Each approval must be renewed. So approvals for suits no longer welcome in the sport in the future would not be renewed. A new, and most welcome, start.

FINA must lay the groundwork for that new beginning at its Bureau meeting in March, after having listened to the advice of many, suit makers included, while all the time keeping in mind the saying "want is the mother of industry". What industry wants is not necessarily what's best. Nor, judging by the growing chorus of voices around the world of swimming, is it what is wanted by so many who spend their lives at the coal-face of the sport of swimming, swimmers, parents, coaches and sports scientists. In other words: the marketplace for suits.

To some in the industry of suit making, compromise is to leave them with their bodysuits alongside a set of rules that can cope with any threats of a doping suit popping its head above the waves. Impossible comes the cry from the very scientific community that now has the ability to make the doping suit. Those two positions cannot live in the same world. If the answer rests in returning to a cut of fabric that keeps the door of design and fabric innovation well and truly open, why talk of compromise? Did Popov feel compromised in his trunks? Egerszegi to Gould, Meyer and back to Fraser. Did they all feel compromised? Did the sport look old-fashioned? Was it regarded as unsexy? Was there no scope for solid, sound, relationships between suit makers, federations, coaches, swimmers? Was a world in which an average of 19 world records fell in Olympic years between 1980 and 1996 so bad?

As we approach the last big week of international swimming this year, we know that 91 world records have fallen, 54 of them long-course. Was the status of Gross, Darnyi, Dolan, Biondi, Jaeger, Evans, O'Neill, Meagher, Perkins, Morales etc not enhanced because their achievements were considered as extraordinary and not just one of 100 such swims in one year. Add up every world l/c record broken in Olympic years 1980 to 1996 and you get to 93 (including some swims we now know to have been driven by steroids and other performance-enhancing substances). Gosh, how boring it all must have been. Hold on - no it wasn't. It was fabulous.

Swimming and breaking world records can be fabulous again. It is for FINA to deliver the environment in which the natural potential of humans, blessed by talent and honed by hard and smart work with coaches and sports scientists who work on understanding how to unlock the gifts of nature. It is not for suit makers to deliver an artificial aid that does not work equally for all and skews the end result of a race in a way that runs parallel to the effects of doping, whether intended or not. FINA must tell suit makers that compromise means preserving the health and welfare of their sport while leaving open a market for suit makers - their innovation, ingenuity and guile within the bounds of rules and in the best interests of the sport - that will always be there.

As Robert Kock, gen sec of the WFSGI correctly noted: "There is a marriage between suit makers and swimming". Quite so - but that union should not be one along the Tolkienesque lines of "there is a union between the two towers", it should be an open, fruitful, long-term economically viable union built on the cornerstones of trust, faith and fair play that have been the traditional values of FINA, its federations, their members and suit makers such as Speedo, Arena, adidas and others, for a fair few years now. Time to make the sport of swimming suited for itself once more.

Mr Sochacki may be among those seated at the FINA pow-wow in February. His voice will be heard. Will yours? Will the FINA Bureau listen with a keen ear to those who spend their lives and some who have spent a lifetime at the cutting edge of coaching and sports science advances but abhor Mr Sochaki's stance? Will those voices be heard by those who in Rome next July will stick a hand in the air, cast a vote and set in sandstone the future of swimming? Is the direction of the sport of swimming truly to be led by those who wish to fuse nature and nurture with artificial aids and will then set their own price when it comes to the costs of a child's journey in the stream of swimming from little league to world-class? Is swimming to be led by people developing products that they have no trouble in telling us enhance performance drastically? Should such people be able to whisper their poison about "purists" in the ear of the highest authority of the sport? 

Harold Fern would have shown Rocket man the door faster than Alain Bernard can respond to the sound of go.

There is reason to hope that the current guardians of swimming won't let you and Harry down. The future of the sport depends on it.