A final word on the record record-fest in the swimming pools of Rome
There may have been spread-betting prior to swimming's World Championships in Rome, but you'd have been hard-pressed to get anyone to agree that there could possibly be 43 world records in the pool in Rome. The previous record was 29, back in 1976, when drugs were alleged to be giving the swimmers a boost. Beijing saw 25 world records fall, while the previous World Championships in Melbourne in 1997 saw 15 world records.
So 43 world records represents something of an explosion - not entirely unexpected, of course, but nevertheless, the sport has surely never seen such a dramatic leap forward.
The current age of swimming world records - a summary of Rome
On the men's side, 14 events were swum faster than ever before, while on the women's side, only 3 records survived (out of 20 each). The table below is a final summary of the Championships, showing the age of the records in days (measured from today, 4 August). The average age of men's records - 198 days, compared to only 79 days for women's records. However, that men's figure is inflated by what is now the oldest record in swimming by a considerable margin - Grant Hackett's 1500m record.
His time is in fact only one of two across either men's or women's events that dates back to before the Beijing Olympic Games. The big problem for FINA is that if they ban the suits from 2010, this table will start ageing pretty quickly, and very few records will be set. While those in swimming may not care, the excitement generated among casual observers by the record-spree would soon die down, and there is a concern that the sport will suddenly stagnate. Effectively, the egg has been scrambled, and putting it back into the shell now is, well, impossible.
The great debate
The huge debate around the suits has been a source of fascinating reading for me in the last week. I could almost save myself the time of writing this post and simply refer you to the discussion and comments section from our last post, where you have made some telling points and great arguments. It's well worth a read for those who don't usually go through the comments - there are some informed opinions from both sides of the debate. I do apologize for not responding to each, but work has prevented me from doing them justice! Your opinions have come through loud and clear though, thank you!
Me? I'm undecided. I admit that my position on the suits has perhaps softened in the last few weeks - initially, I would have called simply for a ban, as FINA have promised to do from 2010 onwards, but the more I've thought about it, and the more I've read the reasoned responses from those who are advocating that technology happens to be part of sport, the more I question that myself!
The world record issue - one for the purists, but not disasterous
Certainly, the purist in me desires to see world records set by great performances, with the knowledge that I really have seen the greatest swimmer in history swim faster than any other human being ever has. It's difficult to think that when a world record is broken in a semi-final, then the next semi-final, and again in the final! And when the top 5 swimmers all go under the world record time, it's hard to believe you're witnessing a momentous occasion! (and this happened far too regularly!)
I can however acknowledge the argument that says that great swimmers will be remembered for their performances in spite of the transient nature of world records. So Ian Thorpe and Alex Popov's names no longer occupy a place on "current world records". Does it diminish their achievements? Hardly. The question of whether the person replacing them is as great a champion is another issue altogether, of course...
Equality of competition
The other problem is the equality of competition. It seems that for a while yet, some suits will remain better than others. Did we see gold medals being given to the world's best swimmers in Rome? In some cases, yes, definitely. In others, maybe not. Regardless, it hardly seems fair that the winner will either be doubted on the basis of which suit they wore, or the loser will be denied victory for the same reason! This disparity is a problem that I don't think many people would argue is bad for the credibility of the sport. Swimming has always been man vs man (or woman), and suits that overcome natural differences in performance ability change that dynamic.
Then again, the counterpoint is that over time, the technology will even out, and by the end of 2009, all the major manufacturers will have adopted the same designs. That assumes, of course, that FINA actually puts into place proper boundaries with respect to materials and design. If that were to happen, we'd pretty soon be back on an even playing field and it would be man vs man once again. The only difference is that they'd all be swimming much faster than "man from 2007"!
Prohibitive cost for juniors
Then the final argument, which we aired in our previous post on swimming, is that position occupied by parents and coaches, that the legalization of super suits will make swimming prohibitively expensive. At $800 a suit, and with the lifespan of a suit being only a dozen swims (if that, take a look at the picture at the bottom (pardon the pun) of the post), it would elevate swimming into that category of sport that requires substantial money just to compete in. Those involved in swimming, with the most to lose (or spend) are most vocal against this possibility.
This is a valid concern, of course, and parents are coaches are concerned. However, it's not too difficult to ban the suits at junior level, and have a different set of restrictions in the professional ranks. So while I empathize with the current predicament, this too is not an insurmountable problem.
So, a debate with a point and counterpoint at every turn. FINA has promised to ban the suits from 2010. There are of course implications. As mentioned above, they would effectively be "freezing" many of the records for the forseeable future. Does that matter? If the 2011 World Championships produce five world records instead of 43, will they be undervalued and dismissed as boring? Last year's Beijing Olympics saw three track records broken in men's events. It was hardly boring. If the IAAF World Championships produce more than three world records, they'll go down as fanastic. It's pretty common for only three or four world records to fall each year in athletics. I don't believe this is too big a concern, except perhaps for the neutral observer who thrives on the hype.
The other argument, of course, as pointed out by Vava in the comments, is that each world record (and they would fall eventually - people who are saying they'll last decades are exaggerating) will be even more exciting and spectacular - this can only be a good thing compared to the routine nature of world records in the last 12 months.
I do believe that in terms of commercial rights and sponsorship, for both FINA and the swimmers, the ban on super suits will harm the swimming market. I realise that the manufacturers will still sponsor swimmers because they wish to encourage aspirant children to pick their brand to swim in. However, the standardization of technology and suit design will effectively force on the manufacturer a situation where their only means to differentiate themselves will be on the basis of colour! Given that everyone in the sport will know that one suit is identical to the next, it's difficult to see more than a couple of manufacturers surviving - swimming would be narrowed down and only those with the best production/supply chain or economies of scale would be able to survive. They would, of course, and may even thrive, but the market would effectively close.
Finally, what is most interesting to me is that everyone, from the winners, to the losers are saying the same thing about the suits - ban them. From Michael Phelps, a winner in five events but loser in one (200m freestyle), to the man who beat him, Paul Biedermann, are saying that they look forward to the day when we go back to basic swimsuits. I'm often reminded that my opinion is that of an outsider, someone who follows the sport with a keen interest, but without a vested interest. I can only take particular note of what those with an interest are saying, and to a man and woman, they seem to be asking for the ban.
Therefore, concerns about commercial aspects, sponsor relationships and world record stagnation aside, I do think that the ban is the best option. How much easier would this have been to solve had FINA, back in 2008, created clear guidelines for swimsuits, as everyone was calling for? The whole world saw the problem when Speedo launched the LZR, but unclear boundaries, FINA's inaction, and the natural evolution in technology have scrambled the egg, and getting it back into the shell will prove a slightly more difficult proposition!
Donate and support The Science of Sport
Thank you for taking time to read and follow our coverage of the swimming world championships here at The Science of Sport. We hope you've enjoyed the insights we've tried to provide! Your time and energies are greatly appreciated!
We run this site as a "labour of love" and will continue to do so, but of course, any support is greatly appreciated. So, if you would like to donate and support our continued efforts to bring you the insights and analysis, please consider donating to our site. You can do so in one of two ways:
- If you are reading this on our site, then simply scroll up to the top of the page, where you will find the DONATE button at the top right of the page.
- If you are reading this in our email newsletter, click here to be taken to our site, where you will see the DONATE button at the top right of our homepage.