BBC BLOGS - Matt Slater
« Previous | Main | Next »

Swimming's great leap backwards

Post categories:

Matt Slater | 17:26 UK time, Wednesday, 9 December 2009

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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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.

As well as my blogs, you can follow me when I'm out and about at


  • Comment number 1.

    reat news to ban the suits. Not only were average swimmers stripping legewnds from the past of great WRs but the fast times with suits on have masked possible drug abuse in the sport. I dont belive 20% of top swimmers have asthma for a start and they use the inhalers to help breathe better. I suspect we will see an increase in positives leading up to 2012 now the suits are finished.

  • Comment number 2.

    phillipellis - How could the suits possibly be masking drugs? All athletes are screened - it's not as though WADA will let them off screening because they have a fancy suit on. Furthermore, the main treatments for asthma are salbutamol and steroids - neither of which would improve performance without asthma.

    I would not be at all surprised to see this change again in a couple of years time to allow these suits again.

  • Comment number 3.

    It seems odd that you use Michael Phelps as an example of a swimmer who will now not be using the super suits given I thought he'd stopped using them about a year ago (or possibly had never used them).

  • Comment number 4.

    Paul Biederman was the man who benefitted from the suits, not Michael Phelps. Regardless, banning them was clearly the easy way out. There's no reason other than cost that they couldn't have been worn by everyone - and really, when you earn as much as some of them do, there is no excuse for not buying one, least of all an ethical reason. They were within the rules and rightly so.

    Hopefully they'll realise their mistake and make the suits compulsory from now on.

  • Comment number 5.

    A couple of things. Suits have always moved forwards. This was just a bigger leap than most, but things would have calmed down, records would not have continued to be broken at the same rate. What FINA may have done is to prevent a generation of swimmers from breaking world records.

    And Phelps DID wear a LZR - he was the Speedo 'poster boy' for them and went on wearing them. For some reason, maybe contractual, he didn't opt for the upgrade and used the media storm to his advantage when he lost.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think it is a backwards step to ban them. It's all progress. Average swimmers wouldn't beat good swimmer if they were both wearing the same type of suit. And it's quite easy for that to be achieved.

    The old legends were wearing something like cotton pyjamas and so it's only obvious that today's "average" swimmers might beat them.

    So why drag the sport back into the past? Every other sport is embracing new materials and technology.

    And what about the records set with the suit? Will they stand?


  • Comment number 7.

    BulletMonkey - I disagree, I think its a brave decision to ban the suits and one I'd agree with entirely. Whilst the top swimmers earn a packet, most don't and whilst some countries can afford these suits, many can't.

    Swimming has had to make a decision about what sort of sport it wants to be: one like formula one, in which the winner will be the best driver from the two or three teams who are able to afford and design the best equipment, or one like track athletics in which the technology used is tightly controlled so that the winner is the best prepared and the most athletic.

  • Comment number 8.

    This is the response from the grass roots part of the sport and unfortunately when you have suits costing 250 GBP+, lasting a few meets, it gives the "haves" a significant advantage.
    Swimming is not a cheap sport to paticipate in with training fees, ASA membership, Regional membership, county membership, gala fees, accomodation when competing at regional and national galas etc... to have another cost in order to ensure equality of your son/daughter will in the end drive out the talented who can't compete financially.

  • Comment number 9.

    Evening all, thanks for reading.

    Interesting theory, phillipellis, and one shared by a few others. I remember a US Olympian made the same point just before Beijing. Can't recall his name, though. I'm not so sure. My gut feeling is that swimming is pretty clean but nothing surprises me when it comes to doping these days. As for your asthma point, well, that's a very thorny one and the anti-doping authorities have spent a long time looking at it. I don't want to go off on a massive tangent but there are a few things to consider. One, some of those swimming asthmatics will have exercise-induced asthma, which is a recognised condition and surprisingly common with endurance athletes. Two, some people have mild asthma without even realising it because they never really push themselves hard enough. And three, I believe there has been some research into a potential link between chlorinated water and asthma. Pretty sure it wasn't proved, though.

    George_The_Second, I think you might be right about these suits (or the textile technology) coming back at some point. The manufacturers will keep pushing the boundaries and the swimmers will want the best stuff. I don't mind this as long as there are some agreed rules that everybody is following.

    Robert Carrington, not odd at all! Phelps was Mr Speedo LZR Racer. Whether he actually needed a fancy suit is another question. Interesting thing about MP is that he didn't like wearing the full body suit for some of his events (butterfly, mainly) as he found it a bit restrictive. He often just wore the leggings. The "stand" he made (and others, including Adlington) against the really quick suits was a bit misleading as he is paid a fortune to wear Speedo and their suit was no longer the best piece of kit around. In fact, it was one of the "worst" this year as the other manufacturers brought out ridiculously quick outfits.

    Bulletmonkey, fair comment and lots of swimmers I have spoken to agree with you. But I'm not sure I agree with the "everybody could wear them so it was fine" argument. Apart from a few superstars, Olympic swimmers don't earn much at all but that's not the problem with the suits as they usually get them for free, which is a relief as they cost a fortune and don't last very long. I say usually because I wonder if the smaller teams/nations get them in such vast quantities. I also wonder about those teams contracted to wear manufacturers with duff kit. This has been a big issue in the last couple of years and has led to some pretty ridiculous situations (the Germans being completely outgunned in their old Adidas kit only to then come roaring back in Arena gear). There is also the issue of grass-roots participation. Who is paying for these must-have suits? Mum and dad. And then you've got the whole is swimming a technique sport or an equipment one argument.

    Champagne Claret, I asked Adlington about that unreachable WR issue and she laughed it off. She said world records were not "a thing of the past" and she fancied her chances of breaking a few more. Time will tell but I don't think we're looking a women's athletics-like situation where a generation of doping has left a sport with an artificially high bar. There will be far fewer records in the pool for a few years, though. Probably not a bad thing.

    2 of 3, pretty sure those records will stand. Can't see any moves to asterisk them or scrap them.

    Rob, good points, well made.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Comment number 10.

    Surely they should swim naked.

    That is only fair?


  • Comment number 11.

    In short term, this will create controversy because of much fewer WR to be made in next few years.

    But as a context of sports, this decision is only fair. Afterall, recent WR is mostly made by the suits, not swimmer (people may argue on this point, but noone can tell for sure if the current WR is technically faster than previous holder if they were wearing same suit)

    I just dont like the sports becoming based on "who can make the best swimsuits". Yes, players are making every effort in training session, but those effort are overshadowed by the progress of swimsuits techinique.

  • Comment number 12.

    I thought the purpose of a race was to see who could could go fastest, not who has the best bit of kit. At least in F1 there is a constructors championship which highlights the fact that the person who becomes world champion might not be the best driver, but just happens to be in the fastest car.

    Swimming needs to create a more level playing field so we can find out who is the fastest swimmer. Look to motorsport and you see the solution even though it doesn't work that well. Apply it to swimming and you could have regulations which specify the technical standards of kit permissable for each standard of race. Imagine you had 5 levels of kit ranging from very expensive hi-tech to cheap supermarket. Events would be matched with the standard of kit. eg National Championships and above would have the top grade, elite club and regional competition would have grade 2 etc. In general a swimmer might be expected to race in no more than 2 levels of kit in a season. As the specs of the kit would be known before the race all competitors would have an opportunity to obtain the kit. The spec of the top grade could be tweaked up each year if that is what swimmers and manufacturers wanted, but again this would be within limits. This way we will know who is the fastest swimmer and the manufacturers would have just enough for their ad campaigns.

  • Comment number 13.

    Good riddance to them!

    It's just as much cheating as drug-taking.

  • Comment number 14.

    Interesting idea Boilerbill, but it would mean some swimmers having to have five levels of kit - presumably club championships, which almost all swimmers take part in, would be a level 1?

    Midland 20, it's only cheating when it's against the rules. If you have been involved in swimming for any length of time you will know that kit has always evolved, one of the big leaps forward being the introduction of Lycra in the 70s. And let's not forget goggles, they haven't been around forever. If you want to get mad, get mad at the rule makers who introduce changes just to make times faster - underwater fly kick on breaststroke, turning on the front on backstroke for two - and then kowtow to the media storm when the kit producers do the same.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.