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Death Of Performance-Enhancing Suits Nigh?

Feb 20, 2009  - Craig Lord

This file has been updated since original posting.

The end of performance-enhancing suits may be nigh: after its meeting with suit makers, coaches and others in Lausanne today, FINA issued a statement that effectively sounds the death knell for at least some of the 2008-model suits that placed the sport on artificial fast-forward. Buoyancy tests will surely do for some current suits, while restrictions on permeability of material - which could send the Speedo LZR into extinction - will not be in force until 2010.

The statement below is self-explanatory and indicates that FINA has looked in the right direction on many issues and in March is set to right some of the wrongs of 2008, though there are details that need refining and not all problems will go away without some long nails being driven into place. For example, the LZR enhanced performance (no question, no doubt whatsoever - the statistics are legion and the evidence that some swimmers benefit more than others is widespread). If the LZR gets past the new tests, FINA's exercise will have been worthless in the eyes of many (the e-mails have already started to pour in). A test for buoyancy that is meaningful in terms of effect on human body in water, not just suit in water (can the measure of one Newton, etc, mentioned below deliver that?) is critical. The critical issue for the LZR and the matter at heart is the use of non-permeable material (see below FINA statement).

It remains to be seen what changes, if any, will be made in time for the Rome 2009 world championships. Some rules will not come into force until January 1, 2010.

The FINA statement:

"FINA, represented by its Executive and Technical Swimming Commission, Legal, Coaches and Athletes Commissions’ representatives, held today a meeting in Lausanne (SUI) with representatives of 16 swimwear manufacturers in order to examine amendments of the current ‘FINA Requirements for Swimwear Approval’. 

Based on FINA's proposals and contributions discussed at the meeting, the FINA Bureau at its meeting on March 12-14, 2009 in Dubai (UAE) will consider amendments which include:

  • DESIGN: The swimsuit shall not cover the neck and shall not extend past the shoulders nor past the ankles;
  • MATERIAL - The material used shall have a maximum thickness of 1mm; When used, the material shall follow the body shape; The application of different materials shall not create air trapping effects;
  • BUOYANCY: The swimsuit shall not have a buoyancy effect of more than 1 Newton (100gr);
  • CONSTRUCTION: Any system providing external stimulation or influence of any form (e.g. pain reduction, chemical/medical substance release, electro-stimulation) is prohibited;
  • CUSTOMISATION: All swimsuits of an approved model must be constructed in an identical fashion with no variation/modification for individual swimmers from the samples submitted for approval;
  • USE: The swimmer can only wear one swimsuit at a time;
  • CONTROL: FINA will establish its own independent control/testing programme. Scientific testing will be conducted by a team led by Prof. Jan-Anders Manson, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and Laboratory of Polymer and Composite Technology;
  • APPROVAL: Swimwear manufacturers will be able to make submissions for approval of swimsuits until March 31, 2009. 

In a further step, rules applicable from January 1, 2010 will also be examined by the Bureau.

One of the main aspects to be considered is the limitation of the use of non-permeable material.

 “FINA has studied this matter very carefully, and together with all interested parties and the scientific expertise of EPFL, we have reached the best possible result. With these amendments, FINA shows that it continues to monitor the evolution of the sport’s equipment with the main objective of keeping the integrity of sport. While we need to remain open to evolution, the most important factors must be the athletes’ preparation and physical condition on achieving their performances” - FINA President Mustapha Larfaoui, Feb 20, 2009.

END of statement.


A year and a week since the launch of the Speedo LZR racer, the president of FINA has seen fit to issue a statement on the burning issue for the first time since the virus of performance-enhancing suits infected the race pool. Better late than never. His statement is welcome in all respects, though we note that the word "continues" when referring to monitoring of equipment stretches truth: the problem came about specifically because no-one was monitoring equipment with nearly as eagle-an-eye as they should have been.

Fair, too, to note that the President's statement uses the word "equipment". We should take care to use the right words. Suit equals device equals equipment. But best use the word suit, just in case anyone should misinterpret.

Fair too, to note that there is no result, let alone the best result possible. The problem is still in the water. The best-possible solution is that the problem will no longer exist by the time the best swimmers in the world (two per country, of course) line up for action in Rome this July. As for evolution, the word is used inappropriately at a moment in history when the world celebrates the discoveries of Darwin. His world talked of nature. Swim suits are nothing to do with nature. They have served as artificial aids to performance in the past year. Time to draw the line - and if Mr president has not understood where the line is, his position is untenable. We shall see in March. Beware the Ides, as I have written before.

Nonetheless, at the end of a painful 12-month period for the sport, February 20, 2009 will go down as a good day for the world of swimming - provided that the FINA Bureau now follows through with specifics that deliver on the promises of the statement above. There is every reason to believe that a sound, professional framework for suits and suit approval is about to replace the legacy of an era in which the international federation did not need to look too closely at what swimmers were wearing. That view is, of course, giving FINA the benefit of doubt - for now. Leaving in the water a single model of suit that has enhanced performance in 2008 will be as transparent as thin air on a clear day, as viewed from a mountain top. "Science" is one thing. The scoreboard of the then and now (the example of Popov, of the women's 100m back - where almost 60 of the all-time best 100 times ever are from 2008 - are wildly unprecedented) does not lie. We know what happened - and nothing will change that. No will to safeguard the interests of a single suit maker will make that problem go away. 

Now that some suits - from the latest garments from Speedo and TYR to the Blueseventies and Jakeds - constitute a device that can aid speed, buoyancy and endurance, suits and suit makers must come under as much scrutiny as swimmers do when it comes to anti-doping controls: only by monitoring both things can the sport provide an environment in which the terms fairness and "level playing field" are meaningful.

Over the next month, we will watch for the details of how suits can be returned to their proper place in the sport: to preserve modesty, to provide a great image and help the swimmer maximise their natural potential - but not to enhance performance by altering angles of buoyancy through the introduction of flotation.

It was clear in 2008, that the Speedo LZR enhanced performance significantly. Debate turned in favour of ridding the sport of "flotation" devices after wetsuit lookalike suits entered the fray. IF the outcome of FINA's deliberations is to rid the sport of the newcomers but leave in place the LZR, then FINA will not, of course, have solved the problem. Most of the world records set in 2008 were set in Speedo LZR suits - and nearly all Olympic medals went to swimmers wearing that suit. If that suit survives the current process, then the artificial performance-enhancing virus will have found a permanent home in swimming. As some observers now put it: swimming as we have known it will be extinct. It will have been replaced by a different sport, one with not nearly as much appeal.

Buoyancy issues may well knock some current players out in the first round of the new regime. The LZR issue comes down to this:

FINA will consider what percentage of non-permeable material is to be allowed. If the percentage Not of cover but of permeability) is smaller than than used in the LZR, the LZR will pass into history. But look at the timing of that issue in the statement: January 1, 2010. So, the speed war started by the LZR would continue this summer. Would that permission to pass through Rome also be given to all currently approved suits? One way or the other, the full extent of returning fairness to the sport looks, at this stage, to be something that the Eternal City and its investors should not be too hopeful of benefitting from.

What is the argument for delay? If permeability is a problem that has been identified now, then the solution is one that ought to reach the rule book at the earliest opportunity. If measures can be adopted now that will see the back of certain suits in time for Rome 2009, why not rid the sport of all suits that are problematic in time for Rome?

As the FINA executive deliberate over the days leading up to Dubai, they will doubtless wish to keep in mind one overriding factor: this is not about the interests of certain players in the sport of swimming, this is about the interests of the entire sport of swimming.   

In addition to permeability, FINA is looking at the issue of zippers, in line with Australian proposals. No zipper, some say, not nearly as much compression - though experts suggest that you can achieve the same compression factors without using zippers.

On all these issues, FINA is consulting scientists, professors, men and women of knowledge. That is a huge positive in this process. When Cornel Marculescu talked of the need for "scientific evidence", the view of experts is what he was getting at. That knowledge is now flooding into discussion and is most welcome.

Meanwhile, here is where FINA needs to look to find an answer to buoyancy. The validity of testing fabric without relating that test to a human body is open to question. It is important that clarity now follows from the team "led by Prof. Jan-Anders Manson, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and Laboratory of Polymer and Composite Technology". Not only must they deliver a result that rids the sport of any model of suit that buoyed performance in 2008 but they must tell us how that is done in a way that all in the sport can understand. 

FINA has acknowledged that a problem exists. It has sought expert advice in its efforts to find a solution. It has identified the key problematic areas. It has found some solutions. We await more good news.