Swimming's great leap backwards
The Christmas lights have been up in Hackney for well over a month now, the first festive cards have arrived from our neighbourhood takeaways and I've run out of room on the last page of my 2009 diary. This can mean only one thing: it's time to get a 2010 version.
That tends to be the only rite of passage that marks the end of one year and the beginning of the next for me these days. Getting excited about New Year's Eve is as distant a memory as my Stone Roses-inspired mop-top circa 1990 and almost as embarrassing.
But for the sport of swimming 1 January 2010 is not just the start of a new year, it's a rebirth. It's the end of a two-year science experiment and a return to the sport's roots: swimmer versus water versus other swimmers in water. And not a Nasa-designed thread between them.
As of New Year's Day only suits made from more traditional textiles will be permitted in competition. Flash fabrics are out, sackcloth and ashes are in.
OK, not actual sackcloth (and the ashes would wash away), but the kit Michael Phelps will be wearing from now on will not be a drastic upgrade on the type of cozzie you might find ploughing up and down a pool near you.
Matt Slater talks to double Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington about the new swimsuit regulations
For a sneak preview of the kind of thing I'm talking about, take a look at the video above. It was shot in Nottingham last week. You should recognise the model.
But to explain how swimming got itself into a situation where it had to un-invent the bomb, let me do a bit of rewinding myself.
About a decade ago swimsuit manufacturers decided to "improve" on skin in terms of resistance to water and other more complicated things I vaguely remember from O-level physics. These attempts can be described as figure-hugging, cat suits in gun-metal black and pretty much everybody experimented with a variation on this theme.
So things continued until February 2008 when Speedo, the world's number one swimwear brand, brought out the LZR Racer, a piece of equipment so clever the sport's governing body, Fina, seemed stunned into paralysis by its arrival.
Phelps wore one, Stephanie Rice wore one, our very own Rebecca Adlington wore one. They moved markets and all kinds of people who couldn't tell a four-beat kick from a high elbow were talking/writing about them.
"Hurrah," said swimmers not contractually tied to wearing inferior outfits.
"The gloves are off," said every other manufacturer in the world (Arena, Jaked, blueseventy and so on), suddenly realising swimming's rule book had coach-and-horses-sized holes in it, before unleashing a torrent of textile trickery not seen since the Chinese started messing about with mulberry bushes.
Long story short, the suits took over. Cue much gnashing of teeth about swimming's credibility/loss of innocence and a completely rewritten record book.
The dial is still spinning on that one (the buoyancy aid brigade have four weeks to grab themselves a diminishing piece of sporting history) but the current count is an unprecedented 235 world records in less than two years, with 127 of those coming this year - remarkable for the first year of an Olympic cycle. A lot of people have been swimming out of their skins.
Which brings me to what I was doing last week in Nottingham with assorted journalists, PR reps and the aforementioned (and very patient) Adlington.
The official reason for being there was to see Mansfield's finest - and Britain's best swimmer for a century - launch Speedo's 2010 version of the LZR Racer suit but the unofficial reason was to ask her what it feels like to go back to the future.
The press release might refer to a "new generation" of kit but it would be more honest to say this is the kind of thing swimmers would have been wearing in Beijing last year if Speedo hadn't got so cute.
The party line also says the "new" suit has been "inspired by the record-breaking LZR Racer suit", which is kind of true as that outfit let the genie out of the bottle and forced Fina to tighten its regulations.
Rebecca Adlington is given the race of her life by former St Helens Junior School swimming star Matt Slater
Ho hum, back to the 2010 suit. It's still tight (I almost fell over trying to squeeze my legs into the bloke's version and the straps were cutting into Adlington's shoulders) but it's not as thinly stretched as the 2008 version and feels much more durable.
It still has fancy "ultrasonically welded seams" but it does not have the controversial polyurethane panels which became polyurethane everything on the suits-me-too outfits that followed the LZR Racer.
It is also now just water-repellent and quick-drying as opposed to copper-bottomed water-proof.
Product review over it is definitely a canny move by the company to get its product out first and make a virtue of swimming's lo-tech lurch towards Luddism.
Adlington seemed happy enough in it, give or take the red marks on her shoulders, and it was slick enough to give her a finger-tip victory over the 1984 Brentwood district champion (although it was in her choice of stroke, not his, and like Milorad Cavic in Beijing I'd like to see that photo-finish again).
What was most clear from talking to her was a sense of relief that she might not have to talk about swimsuits for much longer. And for that everybody involved in swimming, perhaps even Speedo, can be grateful.
Hopefully a new conversation can start at the Duel in Pool in Manchester later this month (18-19 December). Adlington will be there, fully compliant with 2010's regulations and desperate to end an up-and-down year on a high.
Her great rivals Federica Pellegrini of Italy and fellow Brit Jo Jackson will not be there - an alternative engagement and illness ruling them out - but they will be watching. As will a great many more people than would have been watching before suits like the LZR Racer came along. So the last couple of years haven't been all bad for the sport.