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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Swimming update

The swimsuit that is causing major controversy - Speedo winning hands down

I could scarcely believe my eyes last night, when I tuned into the World Short-course swimming championships in Manchester. This was the first opportunity I have had to see, first-hand, the results of the swimsuit wars we've been covering here in the last few weeks.

"Irrelevant world records" - the proof is in the pools

What I saw was the fulfilment of a prophecy made by the coach of the US swimming team, Mark Schubert, which we reported in our very first post on the issue some three weeks ago. He said then that the new swimsuits would one day make world records "irrelevant", and sure enough, "one day" has arrived, as records are being broken by more than two body lengths!

There are some coaches who are in denial, they say this is normal for an Olympic year. And as a physiologist, I will concede that the focus on the Olympics, the training peaks designed around it, is guaranteed to drive swimming records lower.

But last night, as I watched the Dutch Women's 4 x 200m relay team OBLITERATE a world record that had stood for six years by EIGHT SECONDS, I found it difficult to believe that coaches still feel this. That's right - EIGHT SECONDS. In fact, had it not been for a "relatively slow" final leg by the young Dutch swimmer, the record would have been destroyed by more than ten seconds.

At the time when the third swimmer touched the wall and ended 600m, the Dutch team was 8.5 seconds ahead of the record pace, set by China six years ago.

Now, I'm prepared to acknowledge that short-course records may be "softer" because they're swum a little less frequently at the national level, and that this record, in the 4 x 200m event is one that might have been up for revision. But seriously, when four teams are able to beat the old world record (which had, incidentally, survived the Athens 2004 build-up, which sort of negates the argument of some coaches), then you have to wonder about the suit and just how different it is.

A conflict for swimmers - medals or sponsors?

And on that note, Speedo's LZR has done more than just damage old world records - it's also dominated the swimsuit war that has been raging between Speedo, Arena, TYR and Adidas, and created a real dilemma for swimmers who are not in the LZR Racer.

Now admittedly, it's too early to make a call, but reports earlier this week that Arena's CEO was pushing to have the LZR Racer banned on the grounds that it was illegal were suggestive that other companies are very concerned. For the record, FINA are saying that the LZR Racer is perfectly legal, and that Speedo met every criteria they laid down in the manufacturing and development phase. FINA will still be meeting the manufacturers on Saturday to discuss matters further, so nothing is official yet, but they are in a very tightly painted corner, it seems.

Not only are the manufacturers concerned, but newer reports suggest that coaches of swimmers who are NOT wearing the Speedo LZR are also worried. This article reports the US head coach Schubert suggesting that swimmers would be faced with a "black and white" decision over which swimsuit to wear, or face losing Olympic medals as a result.

The conflict that arises with sponsors then becomes a major factor. The same article goes on to say that certain manufacturers (Arena and Adidas, in this case), are saying to their swimmers that they can, if desired, swim in the Speedo suit, and face no consequences. However, it also reports that some swimmers have been threatened with loss of sponsorship support if they go this way.

This suggests two things:

First, swimmers are looking likely to be faced with a choice between medals and sponsorship support. That clearly cannot be healthy for the sport - eight finalists per event in Beijing, and one would hope the best swimmer wins. To lose any medal by 1/100th of a second because a suit might be inferior is a shame for the athlete.

Second, the fact that Arena and Adidas are going public with the statement that they don't mind a switch in swimsuit is another example of just how Speedo has gained the upper hand. They have 18 of 19 world records (before last night in Manchester) and already, it seems that the suit has an aura of invincibility around it!

This might, of course, be premature, because the confounder in all this is that so far, not many swimmers have had the chance to race in the Arena, Adidas and TYR suits (to name a few). Speedo got into the "market" well before they did, and so the competition hasn't exactly been "field-tested" yet. Time may reveal that they are even better...? That makes the apparent concession of defeat by these companies all the more surprising.

Whether or not the differences it makes are genuinely that large, one thing that is for sure, is that if I was a Speedo LZR swimmer, I'd have a whole lot more confidence knowing I was wearing what is rapidly becoming the "Ferrari of swimsuits"!

Last word to Ryan Lochte, one of the stars of the USA swimming team, a man who is expected to pick up a share of golds in Beijing. He is one of the lucky ones...

"It basically helps you float and makes you feel like you are swimming downhill."



adventurelisa said...

All very interesting; and I think Ryan's quote at the end of the post sums it all up.
Personally I feel that these records are all falling because of the suit and that means that it now isn't as much about the swimmer but what they're wearing.
I tend to agree with the comments earlier on, when this swim suit issue started, about the rowing thing; where row boats were not permitted to interfere with the dynamics of the water. And these suits certainly seem to interfere - and change the swimmer's body to a more streamlined form.
That's the one thing about classic "Speedo" swimming briefs - there is not sufficient fabric to interfere and it really is just down to the swimmer.
FINA and the competitive swimming fraternity should have taken a good look at the suits when they hit the market and now that records are dropping like flies it is a bit too late to fein shock and horror; this could have been predicted (afterall, this is what the suit was designed to do). Lisa

Andrew said...

To answer my comment on a previous post, here's a link to the official FINA rules. Notable is:

"SW 10.7 No swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance during a competition (such as webbed gloves, flippers, fins, etc.). Goggles may be worn."

Assuming that the LZR is neutrally buoyant, it clearly aids speed and endurance; in fact, Speedo claims exactly that.

Ironically FINA outlawed arm bands ex post facto after already approving full-body suits - clearly a double-standard.

While Speedo boasts that its suit breaks FINA rules yet confidently awaits approval, it seems FINA is doing more damage to the sport than pure technology ever could.

Thanks again guys for addressing such intriguing issues!

Anonymous said...

Thanks andrew for posting the rules. Wow... those are so vague that either nothing is permitted or everything is permitted.

It would seem that a swimmer using a razor would be "using a device that aids his speed". That classic "Speedo" that adventurelisa recalls would also see to run afoul of that rule because by holding certain male anatomical features up tight instead of them dangling also improves a swimmers speed by cutting down on drag.

Lalu said...

A Few Observations and Conjectures

I am a swimmer, former wind tunnel researcher (unsteady flow), and presently a researcher in biomechanics. I don't have access to the data or an actual suit, so my conclusions below are unproven.

The suit provides unfair advantage because of the expense of tailoring a suit to match precisely the shape of an individuals body to be effective in reducing drag from vortex shedding. The shaking of skin and muscle while swimming at higher speeds scatters a swimmer's kinetic energy into the water. The suit greatly reduces this loss by holding the muscle and skin shape more constant, creating fewer and smaller 'mini-tornados' of water shedding off the body.

Also, the muscles are no longer putting energy into shaking and stretching the skin in unorganized-chaotic patterns that eventually dampen out. This source of kinetic energy loss is greatly reduced.

If a suit is off the rack, and not tailored, the suit will wobble and not hold the skin-muscle shape. I suspect that less expensive versions of this suits will be much less effective than those tailored for Speedo sponsored swimmers whose bodies have been 3-D scanned.

I have not examined the fabric the see how easily it stretches and conforms to the body, so alternatively consider the following contradiction-argument:

The designs shown do not cover the arms and shoulders (also indicated by Speedo as high-drag regions). Speedo does not put panels on the arms or shoulders likely because the material restricts motion excessively when stretch beyond an elastic range. If the material did stretch well, there would be ample reason to cover the shoulders and arms. As an aside to this, breastrokers will likely be wearing a different design to allow for pelvic flexion and full articulation of the femur-acetabulum connection at the hip.

The conclusion is that the suit must be expensively tailored to stretch minutely in just the right places for each swimmer's unique body shape - hence, the suit must be expensive to have the advertised advantages.

Also, video that I have seen shows flip turns that look more restricted in motion than those from swimmers not wearing the new suit. The supporting 'girdle' around the abdomen is likely creating an elastic effect here, stretching around the lumbar and gluteous region, while compressing like a spring on the front side of the abdomen and pelvis. When the swimmer flips over and straightens their body, the stored potential energy in the elastic stretch (back side) and compressive spring (front side) are available to help the athlete straighten and push off the wall with greater kinetic energy and perhaps in less time.

Less drag from unsteady flows, storing potential energy for later use during flip turns, and significantly greater advantage for more expensive, individually tailored suits. The last item prevents a leveling of the playing field for athletes who cannot afford all the advantages the suit offers, and learn to train while using these advantages.

I am against the 'evolution' of the sport in this direction. I am in favor of seeing athletes compete fairly, and in favor of the Unity the world can experience in honoring champions who rise from a level playing field.

Anonymous said...

adventurelisa, you seem to only thinking about men who swim.
Women need to wear a torso-covering suit and have long been waging the battle of compressing the chest & glutes sufficiently to reduce drag, vs. movement restriction.
You were always at at advantage if your shape was standard- it compressed you in the right places. If you were not standard sized (extra long or short torso, pear shaped, large chested, whatever), you were always at a disadvantage, however small.
Now this battle is being extended to the legs.
I'm not suprised.
In age group swimming, our race suits were generally 2 sizes smaller than our workout suits.

Most sports are about money - whether it is money to buy superior equipment, or money to support you so you can have more training time. (How much could one train if they needed to work 40 hours a week and raise kids? If you have the money, you can not work, and spend your time training.)