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A Sport In Transition On Way To Being Suited For Purpose

Mar 19, 2009  - Craig Lord

The question of modesty briefs is the tip of an iceberg of issues that require clarification over the weeks and months ahead.

FINA is deep into the process of righting the wrongs of 2008. We all know what the Dubai Charter contains, while suit makers have been given deeper clarification when it comes to the contracts that they will be obliged to sign if they want their suits in water this from March 31 to December 31 this year. 

Some suit makers are deliberately adapting suits specifically for that nine-month period knowing that those suits are unlikely to make it into 2010. In effect, we may well have suits that will only ever appear for Rome 2009. Not a suit for all seasons but a one-season, one-championship, one-record-moment type of suit, perhaps.

It may be one of the inevitable consequences of this transition period. If it turns out to be so it will tell us at least one thing: that there is no use in relying on some suit makers to do the right thing in spirit. They will do what they can get away with. Hence the need to make things as clear as they possibly can be and frame that in law.

Transitory rules require all suits to be submitted for approval at no cost to the suit maker by a March 31 deadline. Some of the wetsuit lookalikes in the pool claim to be well within the thickness limit of 1mm. Some experts say that that limit ought to be tighter. Only time will tell the worth of the limits that FINA has set, such as "swimwear must not have a buoyancy effect of more than 1 Newton". Time will tell how "regular flat material" is interpreted, and what falls foul of this: "application of different material shall not create air trapping effects. Both materials must be completely attached/bound/stuck together except where required to protect sensitive parts. In that case, the inside protective layer shall be fully permeable." Interesting: Therese Alshammar clearly defines her breasts as "sensitive parts". Quite right. The chest, however, is an area identified by suit makers as one that favours special construction with a view to enhancing performance.

Some suits have three "layers" within one in terms of construction. There is much in the construction of suits and the placing of that construction for Prof Jan-Anders Manson and his team at the independent lab in Switzerland to consider. FINA has been considering the issues closely, as in: "Air trapping effects: The swimsuit/material shall not be constructed to or include elements/systems which create an air/water trapping effect (tubing, channels etc.) during use."

External stimulation or influence: swimsuits which include any system providing external stimulation or influence of any form, including pain reduction, chemical/medical substance release, electro-stimulation etc. are prohibited.  

When the verdict is in on the March 31 round of tests and checks, a three-man FINA Commission will give the final thumbs up and thumbs down. No member of that commission is allowed to have had a "contractual relationship with a manufacturer nor have had such during the five preceding years".

Suit makers can expect to hear within a fortnight whether their suits have made it to Rome 2009, provided that there are no extraordinary circumstances that require extra testing by the Swiss laboratory. The FINA executive (Bureau) will base its decisions on the "recommendation" of the Commission of three.

Not all is lost for suit makers who get it wrong: "In the event the application is to be rejected and if the cause of rejection can be corrected, the manufacturer may be given a dead-line of maximum 30 days to resubmit the same swimsuit with corresponding corrections." That is a vast lenience to suit makers that they should be most grateful for. It sends a message that a line - we know not where that line may be - is about to be drawn in the sand, as it has been with the one-suit rule.

There was much talk of legal claims that may at some stage wing their way to Lausanne. But suit makers who want their suits in the water must comply with the rules, the guidelines and the legal conditions which must be signed up to if you want to be part of the world swimming community on race day. 

As in:

  • "To the full extent permitted by law, the applicant expressly waives any claim against FINA its officers, employees and/or Commission Members arising out or in connection with the approval process set forth in these provisions."
  • "The applicant shall indemnify and keep FINA, its officers, and/or the Commission Members harmless against claims, damages or costs (including attorney's fees) arising out of or linked with claims by third parties based on the approval of applicant's products and/or use by the applicant of the approval notice."
  • "Decisions of the Bureau shall be deemed as accepted and final if not challenged before the CAS ..."
  • Arbitration / applicable law: Subject to the review by the FINA Bureau, any dispute (including i.a. challenge of FINA Bureau decision or disputes in connection with payments or other disputes) in connection with an approval procedure shall be exclusively submitted to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. 
  • Swiss law shall apply as substantive law.

There are, of course, many issues that official documentation does not deal with at international level. Such as, in USA and Australia no 12 and under may wear a bodysuit. In many places elsewhere in the world there are no limitations.

At British trials for Rome 2009, Amelia Maughan, of Bournemouth and the daughter of a Danish mother and British father, both accomplished at sport in their own right, is just 12. She has huge potential. She trains only a few times a week, os far. This morning she clocked 57.69 over 100m freestyle. She wore a Speedo LZR from shoulder strap to knee. She is tall but slight. There is no telling the extent to which the suit may have played a part in a 12-year-old - and one coached by Graham Bassi, the man who guided a young Elizabeth Simmonds towards her senior years - setting a best time by 1.35sec. Suffice it to say that 57.69 is very swift indeed for a 12-year-old.

It equates to the world record set by Kornelia Ender (GDR) at 14 years of age back in 1973 at a time when she had yet to be inflicted by the heavy hand of politicians, doctors and others, some of whom would one day become registered criminals and some of whom broke their hippocratic oath when living in a time of coercion.  Who knows what level and type of coercion was involved in the 55.93 of 13-year-old Shija Wang, of China, last year. Indeed, who knows whether she was indeed 13, given recent reports that many hundreds of athletes across China were said to have been registered with a false date of birth across a number of sports. 

Maughan, a super talent in bodysuit or old-fashioned singlet, lives in a time and place of free choice - to a point. There is a certain level of coercion involved in the necessity to wear what your peers are wearing. And it raises problems. 

Dennis Pursley, Britain head coach, answered questions from the media this week on various obvious aspects of the suit, the headline issues of fairness, of performance-enhancement, modesty and on the meaning of a world record set in a climate of many world records - "Obviously, if it is something everyone is doing on a regular basis it is not going to be perceived to be as great an accomplishment as something that rarely happens."

He then noted: "There are a lot of spin off effects on the suit issue. Developing talent is one of them. Part of the issue is if you are trying to ID talent, in the past you would look at performance and time but now we don't know what they were wearing. And since it makes a dramatic difference, what they were wearing, how you develop your time standards for age-group ranks and make talent ID and selection ... well, there's a lot of ramifications to suit issue that aren't even been talked about in the discussion on suits."

He told SwimNews: "Later on, further up the ranks, you work with coaches and athletes ... and that work is more subjective. But when they're young, one of the key assessments is time ... we look to the time to tell us whether to look further but now some do [wear the suits], some don't and that skews the information that you have to work with. You are risking putting some swimmers out [of support systems] who should be in and vice-versa." The suits solution needed to be one that returned to the sport uniformity of conditions to as great an extent as possible.

There are complications ahead and clarifications to come - but one thing is now clear: FINA's commitment to change cannot be in doubt.