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The Blade Cuts To The Chase On Suits

Dec 31, 2008  - Craig Lord


Roland Schoeman, one of swiftest swimmers ever to have graced the water, believes a line has been crossed on suit technology and while he would be happy to return to briefs believes that there is room for innovation without making a mockery of the sport. Back in March in Eindhoven, when Schoeman's sponsor, Arena, launched its Olympic-year suit, the South African sprinter spoke of his wish to see a heritage meet organised so that the best in the world could line up in old-fashioned suits that sought only to preserve modesty. He was happy, however, to wear a suit that helped to maximise performance. What we have witnessed in 2008 crosses the line to "enhancement" of performance through technology that serves different swimmers in different ways, benefitting some more than others and therefore skewing the result.

In an interview with SwimNews, Schoeman, an Olympic gold and silver medal winner and world-record breaker whose specialist events have been affected more than most by suit technology this year, explains why he wishes for a 2009 in which the sport steps back across a line transgressed in order to make progress meaningful and equal for all in terms of the influence of suit technology on speed.

CL: Do you think a line has been crossed in terms of suits that used to help maximize performance but now appear to enhance performance?

RS: I think technological advancements are essential and necessary in all sports. It helps to push the limits to unforeseen heights. The nature of the medium in which we compete compels us to search for new ways in which to be faster and more efficient. It is my belief that we have crossed the line of maximizing [to] enhancing performance. Never before have we experienced such mayhem in the world of swimming, individuals dropping their sponsors for faster suits. Individuals panicking if they didn't have the latest greatest technological suit in which to race with.  Never before has it been such an issue as it was this year. 

CL: Where would you place the limits of suit technology?

RS: I think this is probably the most pertinent question. We are seeing individuals wearing neoprene like suits, competing and breaking world records in suits that have not been ratified by FINA, swimmers wearing up to three suits on top of each other. The issue has gotten out of hand and there is very little control at this point in time. The guidelines are far from precise, the rules are vague and open for interpretation by the suit makers. I think this will be the first and most crucial step.  We need far stricter control of suit technology. We need greater clarification of fabrics versus materials. We need independent laboratories testing garments, determining their level of enhancement. As extreme as this may be, FINA may need to appoint independent and knowledgeable individuals to sit in the ready room and make sure that swimmers are using FINA approved garments and that they are not wearing more than one. The majority of sports out there have strict, concise guidelines and specifications that are predetermined and need to be adhered to. In swimming, however, it is apparent that even now the rules and regulations governing swim suit technology are far from clear and concise. We really need to have this matter decided upon and strictly enforced.

CL: Do you feel that swimming should draw a line at which technology is not hugely important to the performance of a swimmer?

RS: I'd love to say let's go back to the days of swimming in briefs, that way we could honestly tell who the best swimmers are. Right now it has become a battle of who has the fastest suit, not necessarily who the best and most efficient swimmer is.  Going back to swimming in briefs, however, isn't logical or even in the best interest of our sport. Swimmers, coaches, federations, sponsors as well as spectators want to see a progression in sport. They want to see an improvement in performance, watching world records is exciting. It is based on this that we are at the point that we are now. I think the line needs to be drawn right now and not a minute later. The line, however, as mentioned, needs to be a clear one, strictly enforced, and not open for any sort of interpretation. Additionally it is my opinion that all world records broken this year in prototype suits and suits that have not been approved by FINA should not be ratified. I think if FINA is to start ratifying World Records in unapproved technology they are setting a bad precedent.

[NB: Most records this year have been set in suits ratified by FINA. However, it is now known that multiple suits have been worn since June, at the latest, and on occasions the suit worn under an approved garment has not been a suit approved for wear by FINA. There is also widespread belief that some suits worn of late are not the same models as those ratified by FINA and contained "upgrades" and modifications that did not go through the existing official approvals process]

CL: How important do you think that having a "natural" level playing field is? As in, 'nature gives x, technology can provide Y and Y can alter X.

RS: I think a natural and level playing field would be a dream come true. I think it is something we all hope and wish for. It is not and probably wont ever be the case. The competiveness and the nature of sport has individuals looking for legal and illegal ways in which they can elevate themselves above the playing field. I think the foundations of sport is pure and there are a great deal of athletes willing to uphold these foundations. I, however, feel that there are individuals out there willing to do absolutely anything to win. It is sad that we are at that point in this sport. I believe we need far stricter enforcement and far greater penalties for individuals illegally enhancing their performances. 

CL: What issues have been raised by the suit debate in terms of loyalty and faith in suit makers who serve as sponsors of swimmers?

RS: I think the build up to the Olympics was case in point of the loyalty some swimmers had to their sponsors. A handful of individuals immediately shed their allegiances with their sponsors and opted to use the LZR. Others continued to lend their support to their sponsors. It was a tough period of time with swimmers shedding their allegiances at the drop of a hat because winning was more important than loyalty. It was an unfortunate position we were all put into.

CL: If swimming gets rid of wetsuits and other technology, some world records may stand for a while. What do you feel should happen? Leave those records in place as a challenge to what follows next or establish a world best time list of Feb 1, 2008 and take it from there?

RS: I think if all current technology is removed it would be unfair to leave the world records in place. In my opinion FINA should create a world best list with all world records broken since February in the PU style suits as well as ÒwetsuitÓ style suits . FINA would then have to reinstate all the old world records broken in the old style suits. 

CL: What lessons should federations, INTL and domestic learn from what has unfolded?

RS: I think the fundamental lesson that needs to be learnt is that we need greater control of technological advancements, we need far stricter guidelines and we need far greater enforcement of these guidelines.  

CL: What other issues are critical to the future development of the sport right now?

RS: Swimming at this point in time is a professional sport. The swimmers need to be allowed to act accordingly. We need more money, more sponsorship and greater investment in this sport. I think swimmers should be allowed to walk out at world champs wearing their nationals tracksuits displaying all of their individuals (similar to a F1 racing jacket). Individuals sponsors are not getting nearly enough exposure. FINA is limiting the income that individuals can make. You look at sports like golf, the players have their sponsors logos appearing over a period of four days a week. These sponsors in turn are getting mileage and are therefore more likely to invest in the athletes and in the sport.

I think FINA and swimming can take a page out of the books of other professional sports. The more swimmers we can keep in this sport and the more income we can generate for the current swimmers the better. FINA, however, has to come to an agreement with the swimmers and allow us to display logos of our sponsors. 

Additionally I feel that we should go back to Heats and Finals format. Eliminate the semi final format. By eliminating semi finals we could add a 4x50m medley relay and a 4x50m freestyle relay. These events would allow smaller countries to compete for medals. In my opinion there arenÕt very many events more exciting than the short relays. It would add another exciting  dimension to this sport of ours.


You can read more <a href='https://www.swimnews.com/News/view/6609' target='new'><b>voices of swimmers</b></a> on the suit issue in this file, which we will update over the coming few weeks along with the views of parents and coaches.