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Thursday, April 03, 2008

The swimsuit debate

Technology in sport: The swimsuit debate continues, as Adidas enters the fray

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Those of you who have been following our swimming posts over the last few weeks will have read a series of articles looking at the Speedo LZR swimsuit and the controversy it has caused.

In the third post of that series, we mentioned that the other swimsuit makers would soon be unleashing their own high-tech designs onto the swimming world. That began with Arena and their Powerskin R-Evolution (right), which has the distinction (for the meantime) of being the only suit other than a Speedo in which a world record has been set this year (by Pelligrini of Italy!).

The Adidas "entry" - The Powerweb

The latest suit to hit the waters is the Adidas TechFit Powerweb suit, shown in the picture below right. The suit was first used in the ongoing British swimming trials in Sheffield.

What makes this suit "unique" are the Thermoplastic Urethane (TPU) "powerbands" which are placed at strategic positions on the suit. These bands, made of an elastic material that compress the muscle beneath them, are supposed to improve blood flow and explosive power. This will, according to Adidas, provide a "slingshot that helps to propel the swimmer from the blocks and off the wall at turns".

Note that Adidas are emphasizing quite a different strategy from that adopted by Speedo and Arena, which have reported how they have altered the hydrodynamics and movement through the water - body shape and drag, particularly. Adidas no doubt does the same (they'd be foolish not to, given the large effect this clearly has on performance), but they have emphasized the Powerbands as a distinctive feature, which I find interesting.

I don't know whether their claims can be verified, but if they are that effective, we might be able to see swimmers shooting off the walls of Beijing and gaining places over their not so fortunate Adidas-clad rivals! Or is it that simple? I stress again, my expertise lies in running and cycling, not swimming, and so I am certainly not the best person to answer my own question. However, I would love to see a study in Beijing of swimmers and just how much time is gained (or lost) in the turns, and at the start. This would of course not prove that the suit is to blame (or credit), since numerous other factors are involved in these technique-oriented variables, but it would make for interesting reading if swimmers in one suit all happened to demonstrate superior turn ability.

The other difference that Adidas brings to the pool is the world's first breaststroke specific suit. According to reports, breaststroke specialists were complaining that the generic suit had the Powerweb bands in the wrong places, restricting their stroke. And so a breaststroke suit was designed specially for that event. Again, it interests me to know just how large the advantage may be, if any exists at all? Do Adidas-wearing breaststrokers derive so much benefit that we might notice a difference? Are we talking tenths-of-a-second, or milliseconds?

The suit makers are all claiming "revolutionary" improvements in performance - they even named the suit R-evolution in the case of Arena - and so if true, then simple observation and description of performance may well throw up some interesting observations. I'm really hopeful that come Beijing, the manufacturers will have all developed their suits to the point where the margins between them are so tiny as to be insignificant. We might then see world records falling like tenpins, but in competitive races, which is the least that can be hoped for!

The debate continues - are they swimmers or muscle-powered yachts?

In any event, we've already had the debate over whether the technology is good or bad for the sport, and whether it should be legal. And as has been pointed out, one can only paint oneself into the proverbial corner by doing that! Because of course, equipment is as much part of the sport as training and so one can hardly return to the good old days of Alexander Popov (right), who amazingly didn't ever bother with either a swim cap or a full length suit (they weren't around yet) when he was in his prime! It was his 50 m freestyle record that was being swopped between Sullivan and Bernard this year, and I wonder if he'd still be smiling had he been wearing an LZR or a R-evolution?

On a more serious note, I read an interesting thing on this blog on the Arena research and development of their latest swimsuit...

It turns out that one of the lead researchers in the development of this suit is a scientist named Alfio Quarteroni. He was one of the scientists who was responsible for computer models and simulations on Alinghi, which is the Swiss yacht that won the America's cup in 2003 and 2007. As most will know, yachting is not dissimilar to Formula 1 racing when it comes to innovation and technology, and no stone is left unturned to design boats that have minimal drag in the water.

And so, the scientist's job with Arena was presumably to do very much the same thing - work out how to reduce drag and improve speed by altering shape and water flow over the "yacht/body". Now, we clearly are not going to resolve this issue, but it's worth discussing - at what point does swimming move over into the realm of yachting? At the risk of sound absurd, does the advance in technology narrow the gap between swimming and yachting, to the point where the swimmer is analogous to a human-powered (as opposed to wind-powered) yacht?

I'm not against technology, and as I've said before, I have no problem with these suits, provided the playing field (or water, in this case!) is level and all have equal access. I'm not 100% convinced this will happen, but nevertheless, I don't see the swimsuits as a bad thing. But it just struck me the other day that when swimmers look for milliseconds, they seem to search in the same place as engineers on America's Cup yachts. Is that sport? Of course, the cost of innovation is vastly different - $700 for a swimsuit hardly compares to millions for a yacht.

And then, they are still powered by physiology, of course, which is a big difference. And swimmers can (and should be) spending hours a day working on their starts, turns and body position in the water. Then there is propulsion from muscle contraction that can't be discounted, however low the drag is. And no suit is going to turn me, a regular splasher, into anything like an Olympic hopeful. But if it makes 5% difference, would that be revolutionary enough to move a semi-final hopeful onto the podium? Just some random thoughts...



Anonymous said...

Isn't Arena part of Adidas? (Note the three diamonds v. the three stripes)
Is the company hedging it's bets as to which technology will win?
Why not include both in the same suit?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi anonymous

Not that i know of...I suspect the logo similarity is a co-incidence, though that is a guess. I was talking yesterday with a marketing head of adidas and we discussed the suits and he didn't mention anything about the Arena group being part of their 'stable', so I suspect it is not. Also no links or mention of this online, or at either's website. So I suspect they are distinct.

Will confirm that somehow...

Anonymous said...

Fromt the Arena site

The Arena Brand was created by sports visionary Horst Dassler, son of the Adidas founder and President of Adidas France.

Arena, founded in 1973 as a spin-off from Adidas, through strong market orientation and unquestionable flair for design, with product innovation and the use of the most sophisticated technology, was able to foresee the requirements of great swimming champions such as Matt Biondi, Alex Popov, Franziska Van Almsick, Filippo Magnini, Massimiliano Rosolino, Roland Schoemann, Ryk Neethling, Lazlo Cseh and Laure Manadou, by transferring the experience of success and the know-how gathered at competitions to products designed for all water sports enthusiasts.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Ah, very good, you learn something every day! One up to you!

That's quite interesting. I dare say they're still separate companies though - "spin-off" doesn't mean "part of" and I think there'll be no link between them now. The financial reports don't talk about Arena (at least from Adidas' side), so I'm sticking with the assertion that they're now separate companies.

In that regard, it might be the same as Puma, the shoe company that was started by Rudolph Dassler, who was Adi Dassler's brother. The circumstances were a little different then, but I don't see any link now between them, unless I'm missing something (which seems likely, apparently!) I'm still going to make some calls and find out!


MarkyV said...

Oops... posted in the wrong spot. :)

TYR Rise has been quietly making it's way around.

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