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.
Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.
Did you know?
Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.
Monday, June 22, 2009
FINA approves the controversial swimsuits: Flick the switch on world swimming