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Monday, April 07, 2008

Build-up to Beijing: Controversy reigns

Beijing's torch relay - a sign of the future? And the swimsuit wars hot up

The swimsuit wars hot up - rumours that Arena will seek to have Speedo's LZR banned

Olympic controversy is the name of the game today, unfortunately. Starting with the less sedate of those stories, below is a very short article I was sent yesterday evening concerning the latest news around the ongoing swimsuit debate. This debate, which we have tried to cover for you in the last few weeks, revolves around the legality of the new swimsuit by Speedo. According to the article below, Arena (a rival manufacturer), is moving to have the Speedo LZR Racer banned, on the grounds that Arena's suit is not as fast! Here is the article (in green):

Andrew Webster
April 7, 2008


DON'T be surprised if the controversial swimsuit responsible for helping our swimmers go faster than the Manly JetCat is banned this week. We have been told that swimwear manufacturer Arena is putting plenty of pressure on swimming's governing body, FINA, to stamp out the suits because of a belief its Powerskin suit cannot produce faster times than the Speedo LZR Racer and adidas's soon-to-be-released suit. At the recent national titles, where eight world records were obliterated, only Craig Stevens wore an Arena suit. And don't be surprised if Arena gets its way: the company is one of FINA's major sponsors. Swimming officials will meet at the world shortcourse championships in Manchester this week to discuss whether the suits will be allowed at the Beijing Olympics.

Honestly, had this article been sent to me a week ago, I would have passed it off as an April Fool's joke, so ludicrous is the idea that one manufacturer would cite this as the reason. There are plenty of reasons to look at banning the suit, but this surely cannot be one of them! Imagine if in Formula 1, the Renault team tried to have Ferrari's new engines banned because theirs was not "powerful enough"!

The point is, Arena themselves recently launched their own suit, the Powerskin R-Evolution, and it would seem that the "battle lines" had clearly been drawn. Speedo went to NASA to test fabrics, and New Zealand to test the suit. Arena, for their part, hired the same scientist who had worked on the America's Cup boat Alinghi. There are clearly no "rules" in this particular war - do what it takes to improve the costume, so to now reportedly seek a ban because you lost the battle smacks of anything but competition.

We'll see where it goes - this may well be a rumour that has caught on and spread - it was in an Australian paper, and Australia are sponsored by ---- you guessed it, Speedo. So if anyone is threatened by impending bans, it's them. So it may be a false report, born of paranoia. But what is interesting to me to see is how this issue seems to be polarizing the swimming community. We wrote in one of our posts on this topic that the technology in swimsuits threatened to create a situation with the "haves" and the "have-nots". Whether or not this story is true, it certainly suggests that this may happen! At the very least, we have a situation of "us" vs. "them", and all over swimsuits! It will be fascinating to see how FINA rule at the upcoming meetings at the World Champs in Manchester.

We'll keep you posted!

The Flame of Discord - public relations disasters start now...

Moving onto a slightly more serious, but out of scope topic (for us, anyway), the Olympic torch, a symbol of peace and unity, had no sooner begun its journey around the world than it found itself the centre of global controversy. We wrote a few weeks ago that it was bound to be a relay stalked at every turn by ugly scenes, thanks to protests against China's human rights record. Well, two stops, and two public relations nightmares for the Chinese Olympic Organizing committee, the host cities, the IOC - in fact, anyone who is even remotely linked to China's spectacle in August must be dreading the next 80,000 miles.

It was London yesterday, and Paris today, that provided 48 km and 28km of exposure for the protesters and the Olympic torch that can only be described as the "Flame of Discord", according to the French press. Much like an open flame attracts insects at night (particularly in SA where we often have no power - as I write this, for example), so too this flame is destined to attract protesters wherever it goes. Today in Paris, for the first time in many years (perhaps ever - anyone know this?), the flame was extinguished, put out by protesters. It had to be relit using the backup flames that accompany it all the way through its journey.

This is obviously not our key focus here at The Science of Sport, so political insights and comments are left to the experts and the news sites of the world. But the Olympic Games most certainly are a key focus, and if the rest of the Olympics are going to be as fraught with problems as the Olympic Torch relay, then it will indeed be a shame for the athletes who work for four years to be the deserving centre of attention.

Spare a thought, for example, for all the athletes and dignitaries who yesterday and today had to carry the Olympic Flame in London and Paris - what might have been a glorius celebration and moment of achievement for them instead turned out to be a gauntlet of terror, with threats of violence stalking their run. Surrounded by three levels of security, including a very ominous "inner circle" of Chinese guards dressed in blue, their relay leg was anything but a celebration. If they were lucky, they got to finish their leg. If they were not so fortunate, they were ushered into a bus where the flame could at least be "protected" from the upcoming trouble...this is certainly no way to launch an Olympics under the pretense of bringing the world's nations together.

And I read this afternoon that the IOC Chief is "very concerned" about the issues, including the current situation in Tibet. Well, the reality is that these events, and the protests, were identified as risks long ago, yet people have not intervened. The current protests, which threaten the Olympic celebration, are likely the symptom of a deeper problem and should not bear sole responsibility for the current controversy - the cause has been ignored and unfortunately, the Olympics are the catalyst that bring the symptoms to the surface. The irony is that the current relay concept owes much to the German regime in 1936 who felt the torch would glorify the ruling party - this particular version, the 2008 relay, is doing anything but glorifying China.

But let's just hope that this issue does become a sidebar over time, a minor issue, and that maybe the Olympics can serve as a catalyst to resolve those political problems. And then, just maybe, we can actually get on with the business of the sports, the athletes and the performances, which is of course our main focus here.



Christopher Tassava said...

This is a great post and a wonderful blog - my favorite blog of 2008 so far. I can't wait to read more coverage of the runup to Beijing.

Re. the torch being extinguished on the relay: this has happened several times, as described in this article in the Times UK. That article, and this one from the BBC, also point up the fact that the relay was designed from the first to be a political statement: the first torch relay of modern times was run in 1936 for the "Nazi Games" in Berlin - Hitler's supposed showcase of Aryan supremacy.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Christopher

Thank you for your kind words. Obviously, we're delighted to rank as a popular site, and hope that we don't disappoint leading up to Beijing...!

Thanks for providing those links - I have actually taken them and inserted them into the original post, since many people don't click on the comments, and they do add to the value of the post.

It is indeed ironic that the torch relay, a political statement from the start, is threatening to be such a discredit to China's efforts to portray itself as the kind and gracious hosts of the Games.

Again, let's hope that whatever needs to be done is done, so that come August 8th, we can focus on the science of sport, and not its politics!

THanks again for your comment

Anonymous said...

Why not focus on the positive side of the torch relay? Yes it started as Nazi propaganda, but there are so many features of sports which have completely different origins than their modern counterparts. For example the Marathon race started as commemoration of the messenger who carried the news from the battle of Marathon. Now it is run as a symbol of peace. We choose to idealize the past when in fact even in the Ancient Olympic Games there were also problems with doping, bribery and corruption. Yet we choose to believe what we feel is right rather than what was true.

The problem is not the torch relay per se but the human rights violations of China. When the torch relay was underway in 2004 we had no problems at all. I must say that I feel really sorry for this recent situation and more so, since I am Greek.


Andrew said...

What exactly are the rules for swimsuits? I'm wondering if they prohibit specific aspects (e.g. buoyancy or flippers) or if the language is open to interpretation (e.g. "no unfair competitive advantage").

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi George, Andrew

THanks for the comments. George, I'd love to focus on the positive aspects of teh torch relay. Your (Athens) Olympic torch actually came to SA in 2004, visited Cape Town. I got to hold the torch (not run with it unfortunately) at a ceremony held in its honour after the relay was completed. We had a banquet, celebration, it was a fantastic occasion.

But what I saw on television on Sunday and yesterday is not worthy of positive coverage. And so while I would love to write about the positive aspects, it would be delusional to write that the torch stands for unity. This torch, for whatever reason (you're right - the issue is China's record of human rights violations), stands for division, unrest and oppression, like it or not.

And I don't feel I'm dwelling on the negative when I bring up that the relay was conceived to honour the German regime in the 1936 Games. My point is that it's ironic that this relay, conceived to glorify a nation as a political vehicle, has, for 2008, at least, become a symbol of all that is bad about China.

I'd love to write the positive news, let's hope it arrives come August and the athletes take centre stage.

Then, andrew, the only regulation of which I am aware is that the suit cannot improve the buoyancy of the swimmer. You might wish to check out our very latest post (published today), where this is discussed a little more, both in the post and in the subsequent comments section.


Anonymous said...

Let me clarify that by writing about focusing on the positive side of the torch relay I did not mean you Ross, or Jonathan, or any of the media coverage of the event. First of all I know you are objective in all your comments and secondly the media have to report on the current situation as it unfolds.

My suggestion was for the readers of this blog who are on the receiving end of the news which are very real and disturbing. I do not believe we should hide our heads in the sand like an ostrich, quite the opposite we must face the facts and make our own conclusions. I just wanted to point out that problems and conflicts always existed and these problems are not black and white just as the Parthenon was not all white marble as we see it today. Being Greek I feel I can say that idealizing the past (especially ancient Greece) is the certain recipe for turning into pessimists with a bleak outlook of the future. No offense taken I assure you, I justed wanted to share my thoughts with you.

Keep up the good work!

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