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Monday, June 22, 2009

Swimsuit debate continued

FINA approves the controversial swimsuits: Flick the switch on world swimming

Regular readers will have been following our ongoing discussion around the new range of controversial swimsuits that have, in the estimation of just about all concerned, blown swimming records out of the water in the last 18 months.

The very latest development is that FINA, swimming's governing body, has approved the latest controversial swimsuits, at least until the end of 2009.

As you'll see below, the latest prediction is that the suits will be banned from 2010, which, according to a letter shown below, will represent an acknowledgment by FINA of "its mistake in allowing these suits to be used during 2008 and 2009". This makes it all the more mystifying why these suits have now been approved for the remainder of 2009...

The suits which have reportedly been approved include Jaked's all-polyurethane suit (shown to the right) that helped France's Frederick Bosquet to a world record over 50m earlier this year. On that occasion, the fastest record in swimming was broken by an astonishing 0.34 seconds!
It has since emerged that Alain Bernard's Arena has not been approved and therefore his world record in the 100m will not be ratified, though Bosquet's, drug-testing pending, seems likely to be ratified.

This from a good swimmer, an Olympic medalist in relays, but a man who had never reached an individual Olympic final and had never threatened a world record before. The suit helped propel a swimming "veteran" to a time that is almost a second faster than those who beat him by a second only a year before. At the time, I wrote how this was the equivalent of a 2:14 marathon runner showing up and carving out a 2:06 in their tenth year.

The issues - history and fairness

The problems for swimming are numerous - primary among them is a credibility problem that is caused by a sudden rewriting of the record books, the frequency of records, and the devaluing of records. Not to rehash a debate we've held many times on this site, but there is a fundamental problem when the history of the sport is basically rewritten. Legends of swimming have been relegated to footnotes within a year, men and women who featured in the top 10 of all time now lie outside the top 20 and there is an unnatural distribution of times by era.

But more than this, the problem is that swimming records are now broken so often that they lack all credibility. And while some will argue that the point is the race, not the time (which is partly true), there is a lot to be said for history of sport, and the perception among sports followers (not necessarily swimming followers) when record-holders emerge from nowhere and are replaced only months later by similarly 'unknown' swimmers - the suits have enabled this scenario.

Formula 1 in the water

Pretty soon, the sport begins to resemble Formula 1, which is a currently a sham as far as the ranking of human skill is concerned. Formula 1 is obviously in turmoil right now, but what 2009 has shown is that a driver who was making up the numbers in 2008 can suddenly find themselves almost unbeatable thanks to a few changes in the rules. And the drivers who, from 2005 to 2008, were dominant, are now fighting the traffic at the back of the grid. That is not sport, it is a technological battle - the notion of "best driver" is a farce. Formula 1 has merit as a technological showpiece only, but not as a contest of driver vs driver. You cannot tell me that Jenson Button has transformed himself into the best driver - the car has transformed him.

(I realise die-hard F1 fans are likely to cry foul, and I appreciate that F1 drivers are remarkable athletes. But I'm not questioning THEIR ability, only the fact that we so readily rank them when the 2009 season has clearly exposed that the difference in technology exceeds the difference in driving ability. That is, the best driver may be 2% better than the worst driver, but the best car is 10% better than the worst car. So changing cars is sufficient to re-order the driver's apparent ability. The result is a race between cars, not drivers)

Swimming faces the same issues - is Frederick Bosquet the best swimmer in the world? Right now, yes, but is it the suit, or is it the swimmer? And if Bosquet beats Sullivan later this year in the Rome World Championships, was it the Jaked beating the Speedo? And what about the Arena worn by Bernard?

The point is, the uncontrolled technological explosion devalues the performances of the individual, and because we cannot compare performances by era, we are left only with the doubt that is created as a result of unequal distribution of that technology.

Over time, the discrepancy will disappear. All the swimmers will soon get hold of the new technology, or the manufacturers will catch up, and we'll have 'equal' races. But right now, the sport is in turmoil, and the latest FINA decision has well and truly flicked a switch that says that swimming will henceforth be defined as BS and AS - Before Suits and After Suits.

The World Championships in Rome will provide the first competition and it will be interesting to document how many Olympic champions disappear as a result of out-dated suits, or whether the technology develops fast enough to ensure that they too carve a second of the times they swam in Beijing only 9 months earlier.


P.S: An appeal to ban world records in the new suits

Ironically enough, it was only a few days ago that I received an email from Forbes Carlile (via Jim Ferstle), calling FINA to ban all new suits from January 2010. The letter, which I paste in full below, strongly suggests that all federations will agree, which means that the suits will be banned. That makes the latest decision to approve the suits all the more mystifying, but anyway...

The other call is for all records set in the new suits to be scrapped, and for FINA to recognize only records set in suits made of woven textiles.

For those who are interested, that letter is below:

Bartolo Consolo, Honorary Secretary of FINA, is asking all swimming federations in a mail vote to agree that from 1 January 2010 competitive swimmers may only use suits made from woven textiles. The federations will almost certainly agree with the Consolo proposition, meaning that all the new generation performance-enhancing suits that appeared from 2008 will be banned from use in competition. FINA will therefore be acknowledging its mistake in allowing these suits to be used during 2008 and 2009.

While this is good news, if Mr Consolo's proposal is adopted that will leave the issue unresolved as to what to do with the unprecedented number of world and other records set in suits which were clearly constructed to be performance-enhancing.

Some of the record times set this year are yet to be ratified and were made in suits which were not approved under current FINA by-laws. However, these by-laws were adopted as a "quick fix" by FINA in March in a move which has since been widely discredited. These by-laws recognise records in the Speedo LZRs but reject those set in other suits used this year because FINA now opts to believe the newer suits may be faster than the LZRs. However the 2009 records set in these later suits rationally should be ratified together with 2008 times.

It has been argued that the East German doping period provides a precedent in that FINA allowed these tainted records to remain without any note as to the circumstances of they circumstandces of they occurring in During the German's doping period. However it should be remembered that whereas it was not known for certain that doping played a part in every record set by an East German, we do know that every record set in the fast suits was performance-enhanced. The argument of precedence therefore is not strictly tenable , and is not a good reason to justify inaction which would allow obvious unfairness, which can be equitably righted,thus preventing staining of the sport.

To honour outstanding swimmers past, present and future; including those who made records in all the performance-enhancing suits worn in 2008 and 2009, the following recommendations should be adopted:

1. All world records which are known to have been set in suits which will be illegal from next year be recognised as records and be marked with an asterisk to acknowledge assisted swims.

2. If the world record has been set in a suit which will be illegal after Jan 1st 2010, then the fastest time made in a woven textile suit (before or after 2008/9) should be noted next to the world record until the "textile" time stands alone as the record.

Forbes Carlile


Vava said...

Great post! I totally agree with you on all of these points. As a former competitive swimmer in the mediocre category I always held records of the past in high regard with the exception of those set by athletes from the former East Germany and the like, which were as suspect as those being set by unknowns wearing turbo suits. Allowing these suits to compete with the records of the past is like giving aluminum bats to major league baseball players and then letting the new home run records stand alongside those set with wooden bats (Barry Bonds, Mark McQuire and Sammy SoJuiced notwithstanding). If FINA lets this go what's next? Webbed gloves and fins? Propellers? Riding mechanically generated waves?


Anonymous said...

Hey guys,

The guy on the picture is Bernard (not Bosquet) and, AFAIK, he is not sporting the Jaked. The suit used in the picture, now illegal, means that Bernard's record won't be ratified by FINA.

Detail. I totally agree with your assessment.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Alex

Oops, my bad. When I found that picture, it was in an article on Bosquet...careless.

Will edit the post!


Asher said...

Q. What could be worse than allowing these performance-enhancing suits? A. Allowing them temporarily. If they allow suits this year and disallow them next year, it guarantees that there will be no new swimming records in our lifetime, which really flicks the switch.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Asher

That's a really good point. We're on the verge of an era where not a single swimming record is going to be broken for ten years, because they turn the suits back to a pre-2000 model. That is why they should have reacted last year, in February when it first became apparent.

Swimming is in a serious dilemma. It will go on, of course, but it's a choice of two 'poisons' now!


John Pelster said...

I enjoyed the post a lot and agree totally. I come from a track and field background (athletics, I suppose, in other parts of the world) and appreciate the durability of certain world record performances. I haven't followed swimming much in my life, but I'm wondering if the world record progression in swimming was more similar to that of track and field (i.e. some records lasted for years, if not decades), or has swimming's world record progression always been quicker (with records being broken fairly frequently). I remember a post you did a while back that gave the average age for a track and field world record compared to a swimming world record and the difference was striking. What I'm wondering is whether this has always been so, and if the new supersuits are just amplifying that difference. In addition, if swimming records were less durable before these supersuits, why? Was it technique? Pool design? Rule changes?

All the best,


Anonymous said...

Hi - another excellent post.

As a fan of cycling, I should point out that the UCI have implemented numerous rules to restrict the impact of technology. The most obvious is the now two-tiered hour record. After a spate of new records in the 1990s on ever more sophisticated bikes, the UCI stated that the standard record had to be set on a bike equivalent in design to that used by Eddy Merckx in 1972. This retrospective division has been relatively well received - could something similar not be applied in swimming [pre- and post-bodysuits]?


Cudge said...


Couple of points...

1. Has it all been marketing from Speedo / FINA?

At the Scottish Nationals yesterday 90% of swimmers had a Speedo LZR suit. 5% had a Jaked, 5% had an alternative (my totally unscientific assessment!). Is this as FINA banned all others to allow Speedo to sell out their world stock as the only legal suit and now this has happened reintroduce the others that now either don't have such a demand or have a long waiting list as demand exceeds supply?

2. Will records ever be broken again?

Has this not been seen before - changing the backstroke turns to allow you to push off the wall with feet first rather than half to 'touch and turn', changing the rules so that now only 15m can be swum underwater rather than no limit as it used to be when guys on a 200m backstroke might swim only 5-15m of the first two lengths with the rest underwater? Records set then were still broken....

Would it not be that swimming might just change another rule to make it possible to break world records? (Rebecca Adlington's 800m I think). Some records on the women's side have stood for a long time with the old turning techniques and old 'standard' costumes - though even now the technology for standard costumes has moved on immeasurably - maybe the problem is just swimming's fear of technology...

Enough for now...