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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 3

Number 3: The Speedo LZR Racer creates a splash

The Number 3 Sports Science story of 2008 comes from the swimming pools of the world. It is a story we've featured heavily this year, perhaps more than any other (so it may even have been deserving of the Number 1 slot), because of the scientific, philosophical and ethical questions it has thrown up.

It was over a year ago that the suit was released, but it was in March that we first commented on the LZR Racer. You can read that post here (no point rehashing the story). At that stage, NINE world records had been set, and the LZR Racer was the common denominator. That was nothing compared to what would happen in the coming months...

The French technical director called for a review of the suits, but back then, he was something of a lone voice - everyone else saw no problem with them. This was perhaps the result of the fact that the French had a sponsorship by Speedo's rivals, Arena, whereas the USA and Australia were both benefitting from the Speedo technology.

The swimsuit wars begin

That was a precursor of what was to come - in a matter of months, the number of world records had risen from nine to about thirty. That was before the Olympic Games, where a further 25 world records would be broken (and this does NOT include the poor swimmers who swam seconds faster than the old world record and still finished seconds behind, often outside the medals!). All in all, only TWO events survived the Olympic Games with their Olympic Records in tact - it was an unprecedented "cleansing" of the record books, and while there are certainly other factors in play, the swimsuit has been the one dominating the news.

We began to look at some of the technical matters surrounding the suit, the design, the principles, the debate over whether the suit improved buoyancy. That post, along with some interesting comments from a swimming hydrodynamics expert colleague of mine, can be found here.

It was at around this stage that the battle moved away from the pool and into the factories where suits were being manufactured. Speedo's LZR, developed partly by NASA, partly by 1000 swimming flume, hydrodynamic sessions in New Zealand, was clearly in the ascendancy in the marketing battle. With the Olympic Games looming, no respectable swimmer wanted to be seen in anything else, which of course posed a problem for those swimmers sponsored by Arena, Adidas, and Nike.

Swimmers decided to abandon sponsorships and wear the Speedo - some were sued. Entire teams revolted, insisting that they'd swim in Speedo (and not Adidas, as was the case for Germany). As a result, Adidas last week decided not to renew its sponsorship - the implications of this swimsuit war go well beyond the pool and the record books...

Arena had developed its own full body suit, but then sought to have the LZR banned - a letter, written by the Arena President, was sent to the International Swimming Federation, in which he said that "FINA faced an "irrecoverable loss of credibility for swimming sports," if they did not act to stamp out the use of the suits. You can read that letter, and some more of the amazing quotes, in our post done at the time.

At the time, Arena was losing the battle for world records 18-1, which makes it hardly surprising that their CEO was pushing for a ban!

The calls for a ban intensify - is there evidence?

By the end of the year, however, even his voice was being drowned out by coaches, swimmers, federations, just about anyone involved with swimming was calling for a similar ban on the suit! Admittedly, things were getting out of hand - swimmers were wearing not one, not two, but three suits, so that the material was thickened and their buoyancy improved. This is blatantly making use of equipment to improve performance, and many would label this very obvious cheating (my question - how is it different to wearing one suit when you know that the same relative effect exists compared to wearing your old suit, or a non-speedo one? Seems to me that both lie on the same continuum, which means you have a moral dilemma)

Most recently, following the European Short Course champs in Croatia (where the total number of records for the year hit 105 - incredible!), a number of federations have petitioned FINA to ban the suit, or at least to review its use. All in all, 15 out of the 17 European nations have petitioned for a number of regulations to be discussed and implicated.

One thing that is interesting is the debate around the scientific merits of the suit. In 2009, we'll look much more at those studies (this review is not the time or place! And besides, it's holiday season!) and discuss whether the suit is really having that large an effect. To my mind, there's little doubt - the number of world records set this year is now triple the normal number, and while the Olympics provides the catalyst for this "rush", it cannot explain the growth by itself.

The nature of competition and access

Some other silly comments have been made - early on, a number of swimmers were of the opinion that the suit "doesn't swim by itself". Yes, rather profound...their argument, though, is that the suit doesn't change the nature of competition, provided all swimmers have access to the suit. You should not be surprised to learn that the swimmers saying this were wearing Speedo's LZR at the time!

The point is, and this is probably the crux, that competition is changed when the suit is not available to all. So either everyone must wear the same, or no one must wear it. Unfortunately, the "roll-out" of the suit made it impossible for all swimmers to get it (and there were sponsor conflicts, as mentioned above), and so suddenly, it did become a battle of technology.

Of course, as you read this, you may be thinking "why should Speedo be punished for innovation that produced a superior costume?" And you'd be right - it's not fair to "standardize" costumes and prevent natural market forces and competition from having their effect. So how can you force them to make the suit available, or ensure that other manufacturers, who, let's face it, missed a trick, are brought up to speed? As you can see, the issue is highly complex!

But can they ban it now? What are the implications?

One voice that has come out and opposed the idea of banning the suits is that of Libby Trickett, of Australia. She says "I read that in 1972, I think, there were 53 world records broken, and there has been 54 [long course] this year," Trickett said. "What provided that difference that year?" She goes on to say that banning the suits would set the sport "back a decade".

Regular readers of The Science of Sport would know the answer to Trickett's question, because we covered that back in August - the 1972 development was the invention of swimming goggles, which allowed swimmers to see the wall and improve by perhaps half a second on the turns! (Trickett is clearly not a reader!)

However, where I do agree is that if the suit is now banned, they'd have to accept that the number of world records broken will fall dramatically for a number of years. The sport would begin to resemble track and field athletics for women, where world records are simply not broken, because so many of the existing records were set in the drug-heyday of the sport, the 1980's. We did an analysis of this recently, and showed how doping-aided performance of the 1980's had made women's world records irrelevant. Speedo's LZR threatens to do the same.

Swimming's decision, then, is do they wish to eliminate the chances of seeing world records for a while by closing the door long after the horse has bolted, or do they ban the suit on legal grounds?

I can't see how a ban would be tenable - my suggestion would be to draw a line very clearly at the current point - the current suit is acceptable, but no further enhancements will be allowed, and see how that goes.

FINA meet in February to discuss. As always, whatever the outcome, we'll do the analysis right here!

Top 2 coming up in the week before Christmas!


A cricket comment for those outside the USA

P.S. I've just finished watching the conclusion of the First Test Match between Australia and South Africa. As many will know, SA won by 6 wickets - a win many thought was improbable given the fact that SA had to chase down 414 to win.

It was a great batting performance, and credit to the SA batsmen. However (and I'm going against the grain here, being South African), it was entirely predictable, and I was not surprised at the win, given the Australian bowling impotence at the moment.

As is typical of South Africa, we are currently over-reacting dramatically to the result. "It's the greatest Test match ever played" were the words of one analyst in SA. "South Africa's greatest moment in history" were the words of another.

Truth is, when you look at the performances, you realise that in five days of cricket, Australia managed to take 14 wickets - 11 of them went to one bowler (Mitchell Johnson), and five of those came in about 20 minutes on day two. That means that other that this brilliant performance, the Aussie bowlers managed to take 3 wickets between them.

They were completely impotent, as they were in India recently, where, in four matches, they took only 59 wickets (remember that 80 would be required to win), and conceded 2,877 runs. That's 49 runs per wicket, which is abysmal - the opposition thus averages 490 given ten wickets (and that's not including the fact that India would have declared on some occasions, and includes tail-enders - the average of the top 6 batsmen is in the mid-50's).

So, before we celebrate South Africa's "remarkable" performance, let's bear in mind that many of the world's best batsmen would be lining up to play this current Aussie bowling line-up - they could improve their batting averages somewhat.


biastee said...

Thanks for a good series. But, wonder why the swimming world is concerned about leveling the playing field whereas other sports take the inequality as an accepted norm. Cyclists from developed countries have no qualm about riding bike several generations ahead of those ridden by competitors from the poorest countries. Same argument could be made about access to coaches with the same qualifications, and to sport science resources etc in rich vs. poor countries.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Biastee

Good points. I guess the rate of change, the sudden "arrival" of that inequality may have something to do with it. It would have existed in swimming for a long time - at the time of writing those posts immediately before the Games, a colleague in Spain pointed out that many swimmers have access to high tech video cameras and film themselves to gain advantages, others do not.

So perhaps it's the rate. To me, one of the big issues is the speed at which the sport's history is being rewritten - world records that had stood for 8 years are suddenly no longer even in the top 10 of all-time (Popov's sprint records, for example), which is an unnatural progression. Again, I suppose this is part of progress, but to me, it's similar to the sudden introduction of, say, a bicycle that allows the rider to benefit with a 5% improvement in efficiency - cycling had that back in 1992 with Obree and Boardman, and banned it a few years ago, so that's an interesting example of clamping down on technology...


Anonymous said...

Ross--Perhaps I'm confused here but . . . the LZR doesn't perpetually improve a swimmer's performance race after race, does it? That is, once the new crop of records are set by LZR users and the world's top swimmers have pushed records to their PBs won't there be a stabilization of records until the next best thing surfaces in the pool? Isn't the cat out of the bag here at any rate? Perhaps the most logical approach would be to restrain future developments of a similar vein, and demand that users wear only one suit.

Cheers, Tim

Anonymous said...

As a subscriber and loyal reader, it would be great if you could install the sharing tools on your blog. That way I could easily link posts to my blog and to sites like FB, Digg, etc.

If I'm missing the link, I'll feel stupid :), but I don't see a "share this" button. Thanks!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Tim

No, you're spot on. I agree with your suggestion about what they need to do - hold things as they are and prevent that next generation suit from entering the water. That was my eventual conclusion at the end of this post, and at the end of 2008.

What FINA has to do is figure out what to do with the world records that have been set already, and then most important, to decide how to monitor or regulate suit development in the future.

I saw an amazing article the other day (which I now can't find, believe it or not!) in which it quoted someone within FINA saying that they had commissioned a university (not named) to research the LZR and find out if it contravened regulations. Astonishing, that this should happen now. The question is, what are they going to do if they find out that it has? Are they going to strip 108world records from teh book, effectively taking us back to 2007?

I can't see it happening, and so the only solution seems to be that they should draw the line after the LZR and accept that world records will only be broken at a "normal" rate from now on.

Incidentally, on the issue of suit design, there was already the proposed release of a next generation suit, along the same lines as the LZR, but with a few add-ons that apparently guaranteed enhanced buoyancy. That is something FINA prohibits (it's about the only thing), but everyone was saying that the LZR did improve buoyancy. No one ever proved it (hence the university study at this late stage). So the point is, companies will exploit FINA's "loopholes" for all they're worth! So they need a very firm,clear line, which is what you're suggesting. I agree.


Unknown said...

Sorry, a friend just turned me on to your site and am just reading this old post.

"Turning back the clock" is not unprecedented. The UCI banned "funny" time trial bikes and other unconventional designs (eg. the Trek "Y" series frames, Pinarello's all-carbon TT bike ridden by Riis in 1996) in the late 1990s after they'd been used in competition at the highest levels, once it became very clear that not every team could afford these bikes and compete fairly. I see no reason to preclude the swimming fed from having technical requirements that may limit, but not completely stifle materials innovation for the manufacturers. For example, requiring that the men compete in traditional suits that only cover the essentials around the waist and that women wear "traditional" unisuits covering the breasts, abdomens, and waists. Within these parameters, manufacturers could do whatever they want, so long as they stay within boundaries for thickness, buoyancy, and the avoidance of other small "fins" perceived as hydrodynamic aids. Still lots of rooms for logos (well, maybe not on the men's suits), but this may be easier to enforce than the current technology.