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Strife in swimming's fast lanes

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Matt Slater | 10:11 UK time, Monday, 1 June 2009

For Olympians, the year after a Games is traditionally a time for chocolate, proper holidays and opening school fetes. Some really let themselves go and have a beer every now and then.

With the next peak to climb still three and a bit years away, the first quarter of an Olympiad is not the time for heroics in the gym, hall or stadium.

The pool, however, appears to be a different kettle of fish, as the world's finest swim suits have been racking up records like superstar DJs. The Arena X-Glide is making the most waves so far in 2009 with seven world bests, two more than its closest challenger, the Jaked 01.

Speedo's LZR Racer, 2008's undisputed champion, has claimed four records but is starting to look tired. Can it bounce back at the Worlds in Rome this summer or will its crown pass to a younger rival?

Record-breakers: Frederick Bousquet in a Jaked 01; Alain Bernard in an Arena X-Glide

The answer to that question will be provided not in the Foro Italico's pool but in the laboratory of polymer and composite technology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

Hold on a minute... this is swimming we're talking about, isn't it?

I know an America's Cup isn't settled until the lawyers have had their say, and F1 wouldn't be F1 without at least three trips to an independent wind tunnel. But swimming? Man/woman in water against other men/women in water... what could we possibly over-complicate about that?

Oh dear, where do I start?

The beginning, I suppose, but it's such a saga I'm going to race through the early chapters to get us to the here and now. So apologies, swimsuit anoraks, liberties will be taken.

Once upon a time swimmers took the view that the quickest outfit to wear was the non-fabric, non-permeable one Mother Nature gave them for free - their skin.

OK, social mores demanded a little bit of cover so a compromise between modesty and resistance was needed: this compromise was what Australians call budgie smugglers. Women got a backless leotard with thin straps.

And so things remained until 1996 when swimsuit companies persuaded a few of their stars to don neck-to-knee bodysuits in Atlanta. The suits looked cool but proof of their performance-enhancing abilities was thin on the ground.

There were a few naysayers - purists concerned about the sport's integrity - but swimming's governing body, Fina, wasn't listening and by Sydney, four years later, the outfit of choice was the neck-to-ankle Speedo Fastskin.

The birthday suit was dead, long live the bodysuit.

Not a great deal happened for the next eight years. Every manufacturer brought out a Fastskin of its own and the changes from year to year were largely cosmetic.

And then Speedo stole perhaps the biggest march on its competitors since somebody realised woollen suits got a bit heavy when wet... actually, I think that was Speedo too.

Anyway, the first suit to combine stitch-free, ultra-sonically welded seams, water-resistant fabric and Nasa-designed polyurethane panels, Speedo's LZR sashayed down the catwalk on 13 February, 2008.

Adlington and Jackson sport Speedo LZR in BeijingHmmm, thought many seasoned swimwear watchers, if this expensive handful of material is half as quick as it thinks it is we could be in for an interesting year. Their suspicions were soon proved correct.

Fifteen long-course (50m pools) world records went in March and another 18 went at the World Short Course Championships in April. Almost all of these were claimed by LZR-clad swimmers.

Some in the world of swimming, and not just those dressed by Speedo, thought this was a wondrous thing. The sport was making headlines with a hot product and scintillating performances.

But others, and not just those in competition with Speedo, wondered what was happening.

For them the rules (and battle lines) are clear: the only devices allowed are caps and goggles. Flippers, paddles and anything else which provides buoyancy, like a wetsuit, are beyond the pale.

A fierce debate ensued between those who embraced the idea of smart suits and those who wanted them only to spare people's blushes.

That debate is still raging and for far too long Fina said little and did less.

Not, I suspect, because it was in an unholy alliance with Speedo, Mammon and the military-industrial complex, but more probably because it had read the marketing blurbs of umpteen suits over the years and seen that they were never as quick as they said they would be.

The LZR, though, was the real deal and Fina was caught on the hop, its system for approving suits no longer fit for purpose. This forgivable mistake was compounded by an inability to deal with rapidly-changing situations and a lack of leadership.

The months since then have seen remarkable events in and out of the water.

An unprecedented 108 world records were broken last year, 79 of them by LZR swimmers, including the remarkable Michael Phelps and our very own Becky Adlington.

But the LZR's must-have status was already under pressure by last autumn. Having seen their Olympic models blown out of the water before and during the Beijing Games, Speedo's rivals came back firing and each week seemed to bring a slicker suit. There was no shortage of swimmers willing to try them.

Things were getting out of hand, though. The word on the poolside was that the suits worked because they trapped pockets of air, improving buoyancy and body position. If one offers a 1-2% performance boost, how much better would two be?

Swimmers were seen trying to squeeze into two or even three of that month's suit, while hard-pressed parents were being asked by their swim-club kids for £300 outfits that tear all too easily.

With voices of concern getting louder (particularly from nations which had enjoyed success with the LZR) Fina finally acted.

This February the sport's bosses summoned the manufacturers to a summit in Lausanne. A month later Fina issued preliminary rule changes at a gathering in Dubai: parameters were set on how much flesh could be covered (oh how things have changed), age limits for bodysuits were set and the wearing of multiple suits was banned.

But that left the key question unresolved. Was swimming really happy to become a sport in which equipment plays a significant (perhaps deciding) role?

Erm... no. Well, not in the long run, anyway.

A fortnight ago Fina announced the first results of its assessment of the swimsuit market. That assessment was done by our friends at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and 202 of the 348 suits they tested were approved for use in Rome this summer. That's the good news.

The bad news is that 10 were rejected outright and another 136 sent back because they didn't meet the Dubai rules stating swimsuit material "shall not be constructed to or include elements/systems which create air/water trapping effects during use".

The way we were: Russian great Alexander Popov in 1991

The identity of these banned and in-limbo suits was not revealed but the reactions from the companies concerned have given the game away. Italian brand Jaked has had plenty to say, particularly as the LZR is on the approved list.

Arena, on the other hand, has taken Fina's decision to ban its X-Glide with admirable sangfroid. Or perhaps it just produced the X-Glide to prove it too could do crafty things with polyurethane. After all, it never actually put the X-Glide on sale.

What this means for the Worlds is unclear. Fina knows it cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube by July so it is not going to try.

It is, however, steeling itself to make a big statement next year. New suit-approval rules and more detailed regulations on what is permissible are expected on 1 January 2010.

The purists hope this will be when swimming follows what cycling did with its hour record and rolls the technology back, returning swimmers to their briefs and times to a more gradual rate of improvement. Athletics did something similar in 1986 when javelin throws started to threaten spectators as much as the record books.

In the meantime, the manufacturers have until 19 June to resubmit suits they want approved for Rome and most have already started the process.

More worrying is the news the French, Italian and Japanese are talking about ignoring Fina and letting their swimmers wear X-Glides, Jaked 01s and Descentes. So expect a lot more records with asterisks.

Ho hum, at least it's not boring.

Throw in Phelps' return to major competition, the Adlington v Jackson battle of Britain and the next chapter in the Tom Daley story and you're looking at a Fina event that might generate more headlines than the world championships of its Olympic rival, the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Not bad for a sport that has struggled for media exposure over the years. Perhaps Fina knew what it was doing all along?


  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting blog here, Matt. Personally, I think all the post-LZR suits should be banned and all professional athletes should simply be encouraged to wear the LZR, because then the sport will (again) become more about skill rather than what suit you wear. Wouldn't necessarily make the sport more interesting, but would certainly make it fair and encourage more people to train rather than rely on technology.

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree, it's all about having a level playing field. Swimming should be about individual ability, not the differing ability of various brands of swimsuit. So either nobody is allowed a swimsuit, or everyone wears the same approved brand during competitions. So, Fina could accept bids from the various swimwear companies to provide the suit for the next Olympics, and the best one gets the deal, and all swimmers wear the same. Fina then benefits as the bes swimmer will still win, and it will get lots more publicity for the sport when records get broken!

  • Comment number 3.

    ..."beyond the pail...."?? And this on the BBC.

  • Comment number 4.

    Swimming is on the verge of becoming interesting for the general public, and the traditionalists are not happy. Why shouldn't swimming have a equipment and technological emphasis? I will draw the line at swimmers having propellers stuck to their backs, however, these suits don't suddenly make non-swimmers, world beaters. Many other sports have been improved by techonological advancements...Football, from the old ankle boots and heavy leather balls, to 'adidas predators' and paper thin boots, to balls that move in the air uncontrollably? Rugby? Pads and even grip gloves? And what about formula 1, compared to the level playing field of 'A1'? I know, most of you probably havent even heard of A1. A1 is a form of racing, similar to Formula 1, but all cars are exactly the same...A lot less popular and interesting that F1.
    Swimming has always been based around the Olympics, World Champs, Euro's, Commonwealths etc.? However, FINA and swimming as a whole have been trying for years to make it interesting/more interesting to the general public? Introducing the 50 free to the olympics, just one example? This current debate offers the most amazing opportunity to bring unthinkable levels of interest, money and sponsorship to this neglected sport. I have visions of swimmers swimming for their respective 'brand,' be it Speedo, Arena etc, just like the formula one example. Maybe even once a year? The competition between Speedo, Diana, Arena, Jaked, Maru, etc, just as much as between Adlington and Jackson? Would certainly bring huge interest, and inevitably, money? Currently, swimming relies mostly on lottery funding etc, the current debate may take the emphasis off this, and onto sponsorship etc.

  • Comment number 5.

    pleasecorrect, humble apologies. I was thinking of blaming predictive text but that won't wash. My Irish grandmothers will be horrified.

  • Comment number 6.

    I say roll it back, I know it sounds boring, but I'd rather see the fastest (wo)man win, rather than whoever got the deal with the manafacturer of the suit which happens to have been released most recently, and the world records prove than they DO have that much of an effect, is there any proof based around football boots or rugby pads?. Where this becomes an issue is at minor meets, age-groups and national champs where not everyone can afford to train as much as they want to, let alone fork out £200 plus on a suit made from the most up-to-date rubber, which lasts for a couple of races and then needs replacing.

  • Comment number 7.

    It's a nonsense debate. Given, that they are never going to allow swimmers to swim with no clothing (which would undoubtedly increase the interest in the sport, probably for all the wrong reasons)they should just ban the body suits and get on with it.

  • Comment number 8.

    Is there any proof based around football boots? I think its blatently obvious! As for age groups, minor meets etc, I hear FINA are going to set out age limits for body suits, ie, I overlooked the younger ages.

    Reality is... The LZR was already a step too far, and these will never be ruled illegal, so we may was well just embrace that there is now more to swimming than slogging up and down for 100k a week.

  • Comment number 9.

    Re: Pimmies Pies 12.18

    I don't know much about swimming but its definately not about level playing fields!

  • Comment number 10.

    An excellent article that encapsulates just how much all these suits have ruined the sport.

    Swimming always used be a pure sport. It was you and your body that determined results, nothing else. What a precious rarity.

    But big deal manufacturers are not going to keep generating profits by selling lycra briefs. Gee-whiz fabrics are much more lucrative and profitable and Fina has been either too timid or too clueless to stand up and say no.

    Now a sport that was so beautiful, so free, has become poisoned by equipment and cash.

    Fina should stop this madness now, it is already out of control. But the chances of banning all these stupid suits altogether are zero. The horse has bolted and swimming has been irrevocably changed forever.

    Swimming's era of freedom, purity and beautiful simplicity is dead, sacrificed at the altar of cheap publicity and polyurethane.

  • Comment number 11.

    At NemanjaCraig:

    Firstly, you (no offence meant) obviously don't understand swimming if you think that these suits aren't ruining the sport. The whole point of competitions such as swimming and sprinting is that it's down to the athlete - not what they wear. Football and Rugby are both different sports in this sense so to put them into the argument is stupid. Also, you say that swimming is "on the verge of being interesting for the general public" now that these suits are in the sport, and if you do think that then quite frankly you shouldn't be watching it. If you think that it takes a suit to make someone faster instead of harder work and the correct training methods (up to 14 hours a day in some cases) then go watch a different sport. Swimming and Sprinting, by tradition, have always been in this mould and look at how interesting sprinting can be. Swimming isn't "interesting" to the general public because it isn't watched.
    The reason why I say there should just be one standard suit is so that swimming can return to the close competition that it once was, won only by the dedicated who deserve it not some person who has put in half the effort and just spent 300 quid on a suit to make him faster. This is also the reason why I think that the standard suit should be the LZR - it does make you "faster" but if everyone wears it, it's not going to make much difference and also it's not like the X-Glide and J01 in the sense that it's illegal.

  • Comment number 12.

    Oh, and again at NemanjaCraig, if you think that swimmers get pid 100k a week you really are delusional. Becky Adlington was on something like 40k a year before Beijing so really, do some research before posting.

  • Comment number 13.

    RE: Sp0rtoh0lic comment

    I believe NemanjaCraig comments related to the number of kilometers that the swimmers train per session, not how much they get paid - ask any swimmer and it is never about money as there is very little in the sport. It's all about competing and striving to achieve their best!!!!.

    The suits have enabled swimmers to make bigger gains, but some of this should be attributed to the swimmers and their training regimes - its cannot be all down to the suits, top class swimmers are now able to train full time which is clearly have an impact on the sport.

  • Comment number 14.

    That is exactly the problem, these suits have ruined the clarity the swimming always provided. How much of the gains are down to the suit and how much down to improved training and technique? Nobody knows anymore and that is the sad thing about this whole mess. Instead of simply celebrating and admiring the world records and brilliant performances of Phelps, Adlington et al, performances are plagued and overshadowed by questions and controversies about the role of swimsuits in those performances.

  • Comment number 15.

    i'm sorry bt all this about banning these suits is absolute nonsense!
    swimming has struggled for years to gain more press appearences in order to enlarge people's interest in the sport and increase funding!
    as a swimmer who has first hand experience with not having enough funding in order to compete at the level i was capable of, i think all the fuss over the sport is excactly what was needed and fina new exactly what it was doing by putting themselves under scrutiny and bringing the press wellinto the debate over the suits.
    I have seen more about swimming in the press over the last year than i have in the whole of my swimming carrier, even non swimmers are talking about the sport...thats a bad thing right??

    Since the release of the LZR so many records have been broken making the sport so much more interesting. Who wants to watch a sport that isn't developing year up on year.

    Every sport has a major reliance on the development of new equipment in order to improve them. If the sport never developed, people would quite soon start to become dissalusioned with it!

    So yer why don't we ban all the new suits and send the sport back to the dark ages!

  • Comment number 16.

    Seen this?

    What was I saying about over-complicating things?!? My word, we've come a long way from the days of skimpy briefs and Bic razors.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    I remember when it used to be the person with the brightest trunks or costume that won!
    It seem as though swimming is now becoming like F1 so it's about the best equipment & sponsorship deals and not purely about ability of the individual.
    Take nothing away from Phelps/Alington etc as they will still put in hour after hour and mile after mile day after day, plus land training.
    I agree with the age limits and probably advocate a limit to the competition type (ie: national championships & above). I also agree with a "control" suit to level the field.
    We could do with some personalities in the sport now to fully capitalise on this publicity and bring swimming to sport that people want to watch every year not just Olympic year.

  • Comment number 19.

    Swimwear, beachwear or bodysuits?

    To my mind swimwear is associated with sunbathing, sap luxury and beaches. The outfits worn by todays swimmers are indeed bodysuits but that is a ghastly term - why not like F1 use the term "race gear"?

  • Comment number 20.

    Swimwear - well if it's all about having a level playing field perhaps swimming should be about the differing ability of various brands of swimsuit, not individual ability.

  • Comment number 21.

    This highlights just how stupid competitive swimming is.

    If - as is being strongly suggested - the fastest swimmers can be outpaced by their inferiors simply by the latter wearing a more slippery suit, surely the difference between them is so slight that the whole competition becomes meaningless?

    What we are looking at is nothing more than certain people who can churn their arms and legs slightly faster than others.

    What a pathetic goal to devote your life to.

    Why dignify these people with the attention they crave?

  • Comment number 22.

    It's a fanciful thought that the playing field in sports is level for everybody. A look at some of the toppers of the medal count at the Olympics will give you a wonderful insight into how GDP affects a nation's medal count.

    Furthermore, ever since sport turned professional, it has failed to remain just a test of man against the elements and/or opponents. There is no denying that science helps sport tremendously - training methods, biomechanics, improved gear, fitness routines, energy drinks, supplements etc. It's presence is undeniable.

    Why regulate only one aspect out of the hundreds of market-driven items that go into making a world record?

  • Comment number 23.

    @ 21.

    Can I ask what does, in your opinion, constitute a legitimate sporting endeavour?

    Aren't all sports in essence merely illustrations of who can be the best in that particular disipline? Be it driving a car quickest, hitting a ball with greater accuracy, throwing an object furthest or running fastest (to name a few)

    Is all sport, therefore, pathetic?


    On the issue at hand, FINA should either appoint a single manufacturer for top level competition or alternatively, produce a control suit that is used as a reference point for any new suit, ie the same swimmer must swim 100 metres in the control suit followed by the new suit, if the new suit is more than a set percentage quicker then no dice.

    The quickest way to get competitors to stop wearing the new suits is to announce an inquiry into the subject and refuse to ratify any world records set until the issues are resolved.

  • Comment number 24.

    I can see what the next suit will be like...

    It'll have a small rotar engine on the back and rudders for extra forward propulsion...

  • Comment number 25.

    Sport thesedays is really about who can gain the best advantage by using the newest technical equipements/sports wear or money etc.

    Its not just about the person competed thesedays and I am sure even those who don't want to wear these new suits will be forced to due to pressure if they fall behind.

  • Comment number 26.

    How about all the swimmers just swim naked..

    That would put to rest all the contreversy.. the playing field cant get more level than that..

  • Comment number 27.

    How many sports have not been improved by better equipment? So the new technology is faster then the one before. Wasn't the old one faster then the one before, and so on? Where and how can they possibly draw a line and say what is considered fair or unfair advantage?

  • Comment number 28.

    Sports like swimming and athletics though are generally about natural ability - or should be anyway. It was an absolute farce last night with all the records broke - they really just meant nothing!

  • Comment number 29.

    This might sound naive but if certain suits make the difference between winning and losing can the swimmers not decide to buy the suit in question.


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