Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

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.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Further swimsuit developments

Arena threatens legal action if Speedo's swimsuit is not proven to legal

Yesterday's post looked very briefly at the latest development in the ongoing swimsuit battles between the major manufacturers - in case you've missed it, 19 world records have been set in 2008, 18 of them using one suit - the Speedo LZR Racer. The only exception a record by Federica Pellegrini of Italy, wearing the Powerskin R-Evolution by Arena

And yesterday, I wrote that there were reports from Australia that Arena was actually pushing the governing body of the sport, FINA, to ban the Speedo suit on the grounds that it was illegal, and Arena did not believe its own suit would produce the same performance improvements that Speedo's did!

I could scarcely believe that this could be true, so amazing is the apparent reason for the ban - as I wrote, it seemed as though Arena, having entered a "competition" to develop a faster swimsuit, having hired scientists who previously worked on the America's Cup boat Alinghi, were now turning around and citing the "credibility" of the sport as a reason to have the competitor banned.

It seemed unbelievable, but sure enough, more reports have followed. The article below, which I was sent by Adam, one of our readers, was published in The Australian, and it contains some remarkable quotes from the CEO of Arena. It's in green, my comments in black below.

SWIMWEAR manufacturer Arena has called for a moratorium on the use of all new swimsuits, including its own.

Arena has made the move so the suits "can be properly analysed'' to ensure they do not illegally enhance performance. Italian-based Arena's CEO Cristiano Portas sent an open letter to the International Swimming Federation saying that a "firestorm of public concern has ensued about the alleged buoyancy advantage provided by Speedo LZR Racer and Tyr Tracer Light suits''.

Since the Speedo suit was launched on February 12, 19 world records have been broken, 18 by swimmers wearing the LZR Racer. The 19th record was set in Arena's new suit.

Portas said FINA needed to "scrutinise and reaffirm the effectiveness of its policies'' in approving new swimsuits. He said FINA faced an "irrecoverable loss of credibility for swimming sports, just a few months before the Olympic Games'' if it did not conduct urgently a "reliable and transparent analysis'' of the fabrics used in the suits. He hinted that his company would take legal action if FINA did not satisfy it that its' rivals suits were legal.

FINA responded with a statement saying that it was always willing to examine the issue of swimsuit approval. "However, to the best of our knowledge, there is no objective scientific evidence on the alleged buoyancy advantage provided by the Speedo LZR Racer or any other swimsuit approved by FINA,'' the statement said.

FINA will meet with all the manufacturers on Sunday during the world short-course swimming championships in Manchester to discuss the issue. The governing body said it would "review and update, if considered necessary, the procedure and requirements for swimwear approval''.

Both the Italian and Canadian swimming federations banned their athletes from wearing the suit during their separate recent Olympic trials.

A few things jump out at me here. Firstly, there is no problem at all in wanting to analyse the suits so that they do not illegally enhance performance. That, I'm sure, is something we'll all agree on. But surely that should have come long before 19 world records were broken wearing it - if FINA has policies and regulations, then you cannot review them after the fact - they should have been watertight (pardon the pun) when the process of suit development began.

But more than this, it's amazing that the CEO is questioning the "credibility" of the sport as a whole! This quote:

FINA faced an "irrecoverable loss of credibility for swimming sports, just a few months before the Olympic Games''
must surely be one of the more dramatic quotes made about this whole issue, especially when you consider that it comes from the CEO of one of the companies who has been at the forefront of the technological innovation that affects that credibility!

I wonder whether Arena, Speedo, or any of the other manufacturers considered this as a potential fall-out when they began the expensive process of teaming up with NASA, hiring America's cup scientists, using mathematical equations, swimming flumes and hydrodynamic testing? I doubt it...

But, now that we have some indication of the fact that one suit is performing better than another, we have a situation where there is suddenly a need to
"scrutinise and reaffirm the effectiveness of its policies''. Would that have happened if five more world records had been set in the Arena suit?

Of course, Arena may well be correct. Despite the apparently lax FINA regulation and policies over equipment, there is a rule that the suit cannot alter the buoyancy of the swimmer. And so if Arena are correct, and the LZR is able to change buoyancy, then by all means, it should be banned.

But, if the manufacturers have all played by the "rules" set out by FINA, then I'm afraid it's back to the labs and drawing board for Arena, because they've been outplayed.

Ultimately, however, all this serves to do is detract from the swimming performances. It's telling that we're talking about one suit "performing better than another". I always thought that the swimmer was performing...? And while I appreciate that the suit is a signifcant part of the equation, this latest development does certainly prove that the swimming world is being divided into the 'Haves' and the 'Have nots'.

Your thoughts welcome!


Anonymous said...

This is just getting silly now... Somebody please pass Arena the box of Kleenex.

Of course they would call for the ban of all suits when they are being trounced 18-1 in world, records despite their best efforts. The fact that they cite the "credibility of the sport" seriously detracts from their own.

No need to hold your breath for Speedo to pull in the opposite direction for the same reason that Great Britain refused to adopt the Euro - their currency is simply stronger.

Jamie said...

How will they test if the suits effect bouyancy?

Toss pretty much an suit in a pool from board shorts up to LZR and they float initially!! How long they float and how much is very hard to measure

And if they dont float should they be banned because they negatively enhance bouyancy thus become a risk for drowning

Anonymous said...

For a minute there I thought I was reading a story about professional cycling--controversy, allegations of cheating, sponsor wars.
But didn't this commercial train leave the station when swimsuit manufacturers decided to spend big money sponsoring "amateur" swimmers? Now they need to sell a bunch of $500 suits to justify the R&D and payouts.
Where do we go now? Maybe swimmers will actually go "old school" and instead of "buying" time they will turn to improving technique, efficiency, starts and turns but I doubt it.
I've read that even Olympic swimmers are only about 7% efficient which leaves plenty of room for improvement without a $500suit. Maybe a subject for a future SOS article? Mike McGrath

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jean, Jamie, Mike

Thanks for the comments! I'm glad I'm not the only one surprised by this "soap opera's" latest installment!

Jean, one confounder is whether the Arena suit has been as widely used so far as the Speedo one - the Aussie trials and the US team both heavily feature the Speedo (main sponsor). Given that these two nations dominate the world of swimming, it might not be that surprising to see Speedo winning the WR contest even without the suit. Of course, the other side of this coin is that Arena's claims are based on this skewed perspective to begin with, and perhaps the better (US and Aussie) swimmers might be even faster in the Arena suit! Who knows?

But I agree, Speedo will produce evidence that suggests no advangage, in the hope that what seems to be an advantage is maintained.

Jamie, I have no idea how they test buoyancy. If anyone reads this and knows, please let me know! I would guess (very uneducated guess) that they probably have a device that measures the forces - gravity downwards, buoyancy upwards, and the "dress it up" in the material - a crash test dummy of sorts - to see how the material affects the forces. Like an underwater weighing device, to which the material is added. Any contributions to that?

And finally, Mike, you're 100% right - the efficiency of swimmers is so low that even small reductions in drag have the potential to exert an enormous effect. In the second post we did on this topic, we covered this very briefly, and looked at how swimmers have for a very long time neglected their own training for efficiency. Instead, the manufacturers have recognized its value - we had an email from a scientist in Spain who commented on just how few swimmers actually work on their technique to take advantage of this drag effect.

And so it's a topic we'll no doubt come back to in the future, perhaps in the buildup to Beijing. I've actually asked that scientist, Prof Arellano, to contribute to that discussion. We'll see what comes of it!

Thanks again for the comments

Anonymous said...

I have a solution. Didn't the original Olympic athletes perform, um... er..., without suits -- or let's say "birthday suits"?

Upon reflection, this might still bring up other issues. For example, I have more than average body hair -- would shaving or bodywaxing be banned?

Unknown said...

So the main issue here is dividing the field into the 'haves' and 'have nots', right?

Cycling allows any rider to ride any bike, (see Lance Armstrong, 1999 Tour de France) all they have to do is paint their bike with their sponsors colors/logos.

Providing that Speedo can supply every swimmer with an LZR, why can't swimming do this?

Allow the swimmers to pick the suit they want to race in and then have the sponsors put their logos on it.

Instant level playing field & the sponsors get their camera time.

Daniel Wells said...

Looks like FINA has approved the new LZR suit. Can't wait to see the records tumble this summer.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Ray, Quentin, Daniel

Hope you don't mind one reply for all three emails...

Ray, I'm not sure on that one! I suspect there are other laws (indecent exposure comes to mind) that prevent this from happening! Seriously though, it would be the "purist" form of competition, certainly. And that's the one extreme - the other is to say anything goes, which is probably equally unrealistic. A difficult situation, to say the least.

Quentin, you're quite right - the issues around sponsorship of teams (and individuals, who sometimes have separate sponsors) creates a sticky situation. I have a feeling that in this case, it might be more complex than just swapping logos, because there seems a fair amount of competition between only 4 manufacturers. So given the small size, fierce competition, you'd hate to be the guy who is having your logo torn off and replaced with a Speedo one...

Also, it's only partly an issue of haves and have-nots. That's one big aspect of it, but also, one has to consider whether we're opening up a pandora's box of sorts, and allowing technology to potentially run away with the sport. If all the swimmers were for exampe kitted out in the same suit, at least you'll see competition, but a record set in 2007 will be completely redundant. So the debate is whether that's acceptable...I don't have the answers, I must confess.

Finally, thank you Daniel for your comment and the link. I read the article, very interesting - that is the follow up to this one. The meeting between FINA and the manufacturers still has to take place, so we'll see at that point what happens. But I do think they can't ban it at this late stage - from what I have read, including this report from you, Speedo pretty much jumped through every hoop they had to in order to make the suit. So it would be serious double-standards if FINA banned it now!

So I expect that after this weekend's meeting, there'll be some agreement, and maybe tighter control for the future, and then bring on Beijing. It will be fascinating to see who excels, and whether it's suit dependent. As I wrote above, the only confounder so far is that it's the Australians who've been largely responsible for the record breaking, and that might have happened regardless of the suit. We need to see the best in the world in each suit, and then it'll be clear who won the technology battle!

Anonymous said...

How many sports have backtracked in the past?
I can think of cycling (boardman and his superman bike) and javelins (but for safety reasons as they were reaching the other end of the stadium).
One needs to separate competition from records. Moving from cinder to tartan tracks would have affected records, but not competition. Likewise steel bikes to carbon fibre.
If it's records we're interested in, then are new training techniques giving an unfair advantage to current athletes?

Anonymous said...

Well, I've just pretty much seen more of MichaelPhelps'...package than I ever needed to: http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/Summer-Olympics-New-York-Beijing-Natalie-Coughlin/photo//080403/483/c727f04a3e1f4647aa64fcd80e9e4e5e/;_ylt=AqCl0mfkIAZA2bM3reJPIgsEtbAF
Anyone else notice the damned suits are seethru at the crotch? No, just me? Figures.