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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Speedo Swimsuit debate

Speedo's LZR swimsuit: Approved by FINA and improving world records, except in one case...

Welcome to the Science of Sport!
Be sure to visit our main page where we have daily analysis
and comment of the swimming and other events at Beijing 2008!

Yesterday, towards the end of the post, I mentioned that we'd leave the Speedo Swimsuit issue for a while, and pick it up again in a few weeks when the sport's governing body, FINA, meets with Speedo and other manufacturers to discuss the issue of new swimsuits. However, I received some interesting new information on the topic, so I thought I'd do a very short post on that, and then leave the footstrike one to tomorrow morning (SA time) instead.

Some more discussion on the Speedo LZR Racer

For those who've missed the story, in the last 39 days, 14 world records have been set in the pool, and 13 of them have been in the newly designed swimsuit by Speedo. Claims of 5% less drag, water repellant fabric, an "internal core stabilizer" which helps the swimmer maintain form towards the end of the race, and what are called "low-drag" panels where the flow of water is greatest have been made to explain what must be one of the more remarkable periods of record setting in the sport. Are there any swimming enthusiasts who know of similar periods where so many world records have been set in so short a time?

In any event, all these innovations add up to more efficient movement through the water. And this, of course, is the critical aspect in swimming, as has been discussed in the comments section to previous posts on the topic.

Earlier today, I received an article from Jim Ferstle, a journalist in the States who seems to be something of a "Maven" (read "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell for the explanation!) when it comes to these stories. You can read that article here.

It provides a really fascinating summary of the issues, and presents facts in a logical way, so it's worth a read. What I find most interesting is the testing procedures that were followed. According to the report, over the last three years, testing involved:
  • Wind tunnel testing at NASA to evaluate drag and stability in more than 60 candidate fabrics, including at a "microscopic" level.
  • Over 1000 "flume" testing sessions in Otago, New Zealand, where dummy swimmers and real swimmers are placed in a flow of water to evaluate hydrodynamics
  • Months of testing at the Australian Institute of Sport
What is more interesting, however is that during the development, Speedo apparently met with FINA and adhered to all the regulations for swim-suit design. If that is true, there is little chance of any action being taken now (not that there ever was), but it's interesting to note that many people within the sport (including FINA, amazingly!) are now raising concerns, when FINA (apparently) approved the development. One should not read too much into things, but this doesn't suggest equal access for all swimmers, federations and officials, either to information or to the actual swimsuit. For if FINA officials are now questioning the legality of the suit, then what process was followed to approve it to begin with? Clearly, they missed certain aspects which are only now being questioned - given the extent of the testing done, one would have thought that issues like buoyancy (which seems to be the big issue now) would have been resolved?

Is access to equipment going to be a problem?

One of the big fears is that some swimmers will be disadvantaged as a result of not having great equipment. For example, Canada's swimmers are going to have to do without the suit for a while. Despite being sponsored by Speedo, there are only a handful of the LZR Racers in Canada, and they are being passed around for trial use. They are promised the suit at a later stage, after the Canadian national trials, however. According to the coach of one of Canada's best swimmers, Brent Hayden, it's not a massive issue until Beijing, when it really will count, but there is without question concern. His quote, from this article:

"The only thing we don't want to be is to be feeling like we're being treated any less fairly than any of the countries in the world that have access to this suit," said Johnson. "But we were told that the suit wasn't available. The question now is: If it's not available, how come everybody has it?"

In their defence, Speedo Canada have said that they did not wish to have a situation where certain swimmers at the upcoming Canadian trials had the suit, but not others. That's fine, but those swimmers might well be asking why they are receiving suits months after rivals in Europe and Australia, having to settle instead for a few trial suits?

All this does not do much for the fear that the suit will divide the swimming world into "the haves" and the "have nots". This is a quote by Kieren Perkins, former 1500m legend and Olympic champion, which you can read the article described above.

Arena launches its new suit - the Powerskin R-Evolution: let the games begin

No sooner than this concern was raised, and another big player on the swimming stage entered the fray. I mentioned earlier that 14 records had been set, 13 of them in the Speedo LZR Racer. Well, the single record NOT set in the Speedo was set yesterday evening by Italy's Federica Pellegrini. She was wearing Arena's new swimsuit - the Powerskin R-Evolution. The name says it all, I guess! This is definitely a good thing - at least the competition in the market will achieve the goal of getting the best swimmers into SIMILAR suits. The playing field may yet be level, but only at the top end with the elite swimmers. The worst thing that could have happened is that Speedo was the only company innovating, and then nations with other sponsors would be handicapped from the start. Nike and Adidas are to launch their product soon, so there is hope yet for an "even" Olympic Final.

So it certainly seems we're heading for a technological battle come Beijing. Every second weekend, for six months of the year, I follow a sport where the technological battles rage and winning and losing is often a function of tyre choice, never mind the other $400 million dollars that goes into technological advancements - it's called Formula 1. Not to take anything away from the drivers, but with so much of the battle won OFF the track, the sport has a very different character/personality than swimming and running, where it's one athlete against another. Is swimming headed that way? One thing is for sure, I would hate to be the only guy in the Olympic Final not wearing a Powerskin or an LZR with "internal core stabliser" functions!

Then again, maybe it's not all positive...

Unless of course, you're Jess Schipper. The Australian butterfly swimmer, is actually blaming her Speedo LZR Racer for her failure to break the world record in the 200m butterfly event. Her reason? The suit apparently filled with water when she dived in, and forced her to slow down so much in the final 50m that she was almost caught by two rivals. Of course, given that she went out 1.34 seconds FASTER than the world record pace, there is a chance that she simply "blew" coming home and physiology explains the slow down. But for a great quote from this article:

"Schipper had started like a speedboat to be 1.34 seconds under world record pace at the 100m mark with an opening split of 58.77s. But she finished like a submarine to clock 2mins:06.82secs and finish over a second off her best (2:05.40)".

I'm not sure whether the "speed boat" first half is more a concern than the "submarine" second, but it's an interesting story of how sometimes, the most advanced technology in the world can undermine your efforts - imagine, a swimmer sunk by a "leak"! Or should that be a speedboat?



Unknown said...

Hey Jon and Ross,
I was wondering what you guys think the placebo effect of this suit might have? I think it would be a fascinating study comparing times for the following:

elite swimmer+speedo suit
elite swimmer+fake speedo suit
elite swimmer+normal suit

also, it would be great to compare the placebo effect (if there is any) in elite swimmers compared to non-elite swimmers.

i would imagine that the placebo effect of having better equipment is greater for amateurs that for pro athletes, but have you guys ever read anything on it?

thanks for the great blog,

-David Raymer

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi David

Good question. I was actually thinking this myself, earlier today. The problem of course, is that the Speedo suit is designed to FEEL different. As I read it, the suit has an incredibly tight, "corset-like" midsection, which compresses the body into a more hydrodynamic shape. That, according to the guy I contacted yesterday (Prof Arellano) is the source of the biggest advantage. So to create a placebo may be impossible, because it would sacrifice the biggest benefit, and the problem is that the athlete must know about it. I can't imagine that the guy in the suit would not feel the difference...So that's the problem - however, I don't know what it is like to wear this suit.

But I'm sure it makes a massive difference, even just mentally. If you are standing up there on your start blocks, and you BELIEVE that you have the best equipment and have done the best training and preparation, the race is half won. Even worse is that if you DON'T believe you've done everything possible, including getting hte best suit, then you start with a handicap. So yes, I think the psychological effect is massive, just don't know how I'd test for it. Certainly, the placebo effect is real, but in this case, I can't see a placebo that the subject is unaware of...?

As for the effect, I'm sure it would be greater in non-elite, but more significant in elite. In otherwords, 10 seconds to a non-elite swimmer would be worth less than 0.5 seconds to an elite swimmer. So if there is a placebo effect (which I'm sure there is), the elite guy gets relatively more benefit, because of how tight things are.

Thanks for the support of the blog!

Anonymous said...

How is this what this suit accomplishes really that different than letting swimmers wear flippers? Lets let the swimmers wear flippers, let the runners wear carbon fiber blades, and biathletes use snowmobiles. And baseball players can use as much HGH as they want.

Unknown said...

Nice post guys. Just a quick thought David's comment (regarding a possible placebo effect) :

It'd be extremely difficult to test for a placebo effect in a competitive sport such as this. Athletes can see each other nearby, and this undoubtedly alters their performance.

If the test swims are performed in isolation, the times may well be different, and inconsistent.

Back to the main article for a minute - it's great to hear that you guys are keen on F1. Fantastic sport.

Unknown said...

I found the placebo idea interesting as well. I heard somewhere that after Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile, 9 people then broke it within a year and a half. Before this it was considered physiologically impossible. I don't know if that stat is accurate, but if so it seems the mental component can't be ruled out. Love this blog, so fascinating!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi everyone

Thanks again for the comments. Anonymous, you've hit the nail on the head, though in a more extreme sense. I'm sure there are many technical arguments that distinguish between flippers and the suit, but it does highlight the key debate - just when does equipment move from passive to active?

And then Scott, I agree. As an elite athlete, if I was taking my place in the Final of the Olympics, I would want to know that the guys either side of me are LESS prepared than I am. If that means I've spent hours in a wind tunnel and in a swimming flume, then I'd do it. If it means I'm following some other method that might give an advantage, then I'm doing it. The point is, sometimes all these gadgets and gimmicks don't need to be proven. As long as they are not detrimental, then the "edge" they give the athelte is pretty much all that counts, real or not!

I recall that England's rugby coach, Clive Woodward, hired all kinds of assistants and advisors. Some of them have no basis to improve performance, but his attitude was that his team would take the field believing that they had done MORE than the opponent to prepare. And that's all that matters.

And finally, the story of Roger Bannister and the 4-minute mile is a great one to illustrate the barriers that limit our performance. That particular story is so fascinating, I'll devote a post to in the next week. So Lorne, thanks for the question, you've inspired a post. It will probably be early next week!

Thanks for the support!

Anonymous said...

Human performance vs. Technological Advancement... Where can the line be drawn?

All of the sports governing bodies face this problem e.g. cycling faced the same issues with a certain Graeme Obree when he changed his bike design to accommodate a radical new position. He used this "old faithful" to break the prestigious World hour record in 1993. After he broke the record again in 1994, the UCI banned this position and so he developed a new modified legal position that was dubbed the "superman" position. He used this to win the world pursuit championships in 1995. Chris Boardman used the same position to claim the hour record again. The UCI once again stepped in to ban this position, stating that "human effort and skill are more significant than technological advance".

Despite their stringent rules governing bike geometry, weights etc. to this day, I would still like to see any of today's athletes challenge Eddy Merckx world hour record on the same iron bike that Merckx used without all of the aero helmets, skintight suits, wind-tunnel tested positions etc...

My point is that technology is still a factor in sports performance.

Any cynic to Speedo's new suit is surely nit-picking, because swimming now incorporate run-off pools, flat lane ropes and deeper pools to minimise wash. Lane blocks are also equipped with handles to allow swimmers a faster slingshot start. Yet this is all above board?

I don't think there was such an outcry when athletics tracks switched from cinder to tartan either.

The fact that so many records have fallen in such a short amount of time, and this overlaps with the introduction of the new suit may say something... it may not. Fourteen world records were set at the Melbourne World Championships just 12 months ago, without a supersuit and there was no cry of foul play.

Could it not be that coming into olympic games, the swimmers are starting to peak in their form and this is the reason for the records? In this scenario, shouldn't their highly advanced and meticulous scientific prepartion methods be to blame, and so should sports scientists be outlawed as illegal aids as well?

My 2c...

Anonymous said...

Hi guys,

It's really the sad evolution of sport.

I remember the "old time's" when Popov bet the WR wearing no cap (with hair!) and using a simple beach shorts.

In triathlon we experience that "no compassion" evolution... realy expensive swim suits...realy realy realy expensive bikes and wheel sets.... The winner is that one that has the money to get all this stuff.

Congratulations for the great blog.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the UCI (in one of the few intelligent things they've done) did change the rules for the hour record to closely mirror the bike and clothing that Eddy used. Boardman still has the 'conventional' hour record, which is almost three kilometers shorter than the one he set in the 'superman' position; clearly showing the effect of aerodynamics. By the way he said it was by far the hardest thing he had ever done.

Chris said...

I recently read an excellent article that analyzed/showed the step-down pattern of swimming world records that coincided with the lead-in to Olympics. The reasoning is that "making the Olympic team" is harder than the Olympics themselves because the competition can be greater. You can't win an Olympic medal without first "making the team", so that pressure is so much greater a priority for so many vs. medaling. In many other sports, the competition at world championships or Olympic Trials is greater than the Oly's themselves. I'll try to find the article, but this month fits that pattern (eventhough I think the suits provide an unfortunate advantage over previous swimmers.)

Anonymous said...

Emiliano - I know what you mean by athletes "buying time" in triathlons. Pro's have similar access to technology, and so the playing field is somewhat level but in the age groups, this is not the case. Disc wheels, aero helmets, high-tech carbon components often see fat wallets winning out over athletic ability.

And if there are complaints going up about Speedo's LZR, I would love to see the comment on the triathlon suits that are currently on the market-Suits like the 2XU V1 (google it) would cause a mild coronary to any LZR skeptics.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just wanted to say that swim suits dont break records. The SWIMMERS break the records. The suits aren't diving in and swimming as fast as they can, the swimmers are. The swimsuits don't put in 4+ hours in the pool every day! The swimsuits haven't been prepping for this meet their entire lives, the swimmers have!

Yes technology is fantastic! But a bathing suit isn't going to make someone set records. The person's perserverance and dedication will. If a swimmer is going to set records, he/she will set records regardless of the suit they are wearing. Yes, it's possible that wearing a "revolutionary" suit could boost one's confidence and pyschological mindset but in the end, it comes down to the person's training and how bad he/she wants it.

How can you really argue that a swimsuit is breaking records... ?It's a swimsuit for crying out loud.

Just wanted to share my feedback.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Thanks for the comments. That's a fairly common perception, and I do agree with you...up to a point. I actually wrote another post on that very point, where I also discussed whether we should be attributing the WR to the suit or the guy in it.

And of course, the swimmer still goes out breaks it, and it takes the training, the committment and so on to do that.

But here's the thing:

If you were watching a cyclist who you KNEW was on drugs, then would his performance be the same for you? He still has to train 4 hours a day, still has to suffer as he climbs mountains struggling to breathe on his bike, still feels the same level of pain as the next guy. Yet somehow, because he's a doper, the performance isn't quite the same, is it? Unless we're prepared to condone doping.

Now, take the suit. If this suit makes a 2% difference, then the same swimmer who wears it can go approximately 0.5 seconds faster for every 50m they swim. THerefore, take a swimmer called Mike - if he swims a 200m race in any other suit, he does a time of 1:49. That is a world class time, and he undoubtedely trains hard, and deserves to be one of the best.

Now, put him in hte Speedo LZR Racer - 2% improvement means his time comes down to 1:47. Suddenly we're talking Olympic gold potential - Michael Phelps look out. Has he done anything different? Nope, it's the suit. So looked at this way, it's difficult to argue that the suit is not the only difference in the equation, and therefore is responsible for records.

I don't think I ever wrote that the suit is breaking records. That would be wrong. But it's darn sure responsible!