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.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Swimming's drama continues

If it's not the LZR, then it must be Arena.. Or Jaked....swimming's farce becomes even more farcical

Regular readers of The Science of Sport will be well aware of what transpired in the pools of the world last year, when Speedo's LZR battled Arena's Powerskin for pool supremacy!

In the end, the LZR (or should that be the swimmers wearing the LZR?) triumphed, as swimming saw an unprecented number of records broken. Only 2 events managed to survive Beijing with their Olympic Records in tact, and never before had so many world records fallen.

At one point, just after the Beijing Olympics, I calculated that the average age of a swimming world record for men was 1 year and 1 month. For women, it stood at 8 months. By comparison, the average age of track and field records was 8 years 11 months or 14 years 9 months for men and women respectively.

You can read that post here.

Different year, same situation

But, the madness has not stopped. The first part of 2009 has seen the record glut continue in the pools of the world, as we build up to the world championships in Rome. Just last month, both the 50m and 100m freestyle records were smashed by French swimmers. First Alain Bernard destroyed the 100m record in a suit that was still awaiting ratification by the sport's governing body. Then, only a few days later, the 50m freestyle record fell, this time to Frederick Bosquet, wearing a suit that had been ratified.

His, made by the company Jaked, can be seen to the right. It's pretty flashy, of course, but the secret to the suit, apparently, is the polyurethane material that covers it entirely. You may recall that Speedo's LZR Racer had strategically placed panels that reduced drag. The new suits represent an improvement, the theory goes, because they provide full drag reduction.

They also, according to critics, improve buoyancy, which would make them illegal according to FINA rules of last year. However, pinning down FINA's rules, and how they are enforced, is apparently more difficult than it must be to get into one of these suits.

And so to date, despite what I suspect must be a very straightforward measurement, FINA has not stamped out the use of any suit, and as they are entitled to do, the manufacturers have gone crazy in their efforts to gain a performance advantage (cue running shoes and Oscar Pistorius here)

So good are the new suits, that Bosquet, a man who had never, in 7 years, made an Olympic final, managed to smash 0.34 seconds off the old world record in the shortest event in the pool. The magnitude of the improvement, from a swimmer who has stived for a decade to improve but not done so by more than about a 1 second range, is suddenly swimming nearly a second faster than those who beat him only 3 years ago. Over one length, he has improved by almost a second compared to ten years of performances. That is like a 2:14 marathon runner suddenly improving to 2:06 after ten years of trying. It just doesn't happen.

But it's not the suit - yeah right

Yet he still denies the suit is assisting his performances, pointing instead to better training methods and preparation. This is incredibly insulting to those in the sport, it has to be said. It's as if there was a sudden epiphany among coaches in late 2007 that saw the 2008 performances jump ahead a generation in a few months. Great swimmers of only 5 years ago are now relegated to footnotes of swimming history, their once-great world records not even managing to feature on lists of top 20 performances in history.

Swimming is a complete farce right now, thanks to the toothless, rudderless (apologies for the mixed metaphor) leadership that failed to clamp down on the suits last year, and given plenty of warning, has failed again this year. Critics abound - read this latest article on the Bosquet-defence for an example. And at the bottom of this post is a letter that was written by Professor Brent Rushall, a respected sports scientist at San Diego State, in which he is scathing of the FINA leadership that has allowed this situation to develop.

Sadly, a sport like swimming needs all the support it can get. It lies somewhere in the second tier of sports when it comes to global popularity (apologies to swimming fans, coaches and athletes), but the truth is that the sport needs to reach out to its non-followers, the neutral observers. Unfortunately, when it degenerates into the farce that is world-swimming at the moment, it becomes difficult, if not damaging for the sport. Few people can appreciate the intricacies of the sport, but everyone can see the ridiculous situation that FINA have allowed to develop with these suits.

Sadly, it was predictable from a long time ago, yet we find ourselves debating the same thing, with no end in sight. A ruling is expected in Lausanne tomorrow, but it is not the first meeting to discuss suits. I dare say it won't be the last.

We'll bring you more news as it develops.

Until then, the letter below by Brent Rushall expresses what is pretty close to my opinion. More to follow I am sure!


Perhaps the best strategy to solve the problems in which swimming now finds itself would be to call for the complete dissolution of those holding positions in the current FINA Bureau. While it has been in "power", it has manipulated events in such a way that the reputation and popularity of the sport of swimming is under grave threat.

In the late 1990's when bodysuits came onto the scene, one manufacturer (Adidas) advertised its suit as "equipment" (which is a synonym for "device"). At that time, FINA should have acted on both Rule 5.0 to cover the device factor and Rule SW10.7 to cover the also advertised performance enhancement of the equipment in suits . Similar claims were made by other manufacturers, the general implication being that their "devices" produced unnatural phenomena that enhanced performance. The magnitude of the enhancement claims far exceeded any improvement that would be possible from using any performance-enhancing drug, and the reprehensibility of that action is well recognized and accepted.

FINA's intransigence about the intrusion of artificial assistance has distorted the sport to the point where now it is subject to considerable ridicule rather than admiration. The failure of the Bureau to uphold the laws of the sport and to act on behalf of "swimming" (all competitors and officials associated with practicing and competing in the activity) and to seemingly cow-tow to manufacturers and their profit motives is a clear dereliction of duty. Those responsible for allowing the intrusion of artificial aids in a once pristine and admired activity, a "pure" sport, should be held accountable and dismissed.

The current complicated, manufacturer-friendly, unsatisfactory three-phase procedure that is supposed to correct the situation is seen by most persons actively engaged in the sport as being ridiculous and failing to address the problems and growing concerns of the majority of serious swimmers and swimmer-representative organizations. The ridicule-deserving action of the Bureau, and its steering of "decisions" through various FINA bodies to make it "official" is one of the most blatant insults perpetrated upon serious sportspersons in Olympic sports.

In less than 10 years, a grand history of human physical endeavor has been undone by a few individuals. It is obvious that the current FINA executive and Bureau are incapable of controlling swimming to make it the test of the human vs. human it has traditionally been.

Why haven't FINA acted to save the sport from the intrusion of technology that makes competitions unfair? What is FINA's motive? One can only speculate on a range of motives from incompetence to undisclosed personal incentives.

We are watching the most rapid decline in the concept of fair and natural performance in the sport's history. Swimming medals, once determined by 1000ths of a second of natural talent, now are determined by the suit/equipment/performance-aid of specific makers. Manufacturers are now aggressively escalating the violation of the sport's traditional competition ethics while the Nero-like FINA members sit idly by, seemingly frightened to act in the Circus that continues to unfold.

Clearly, those acting as the power-brokers in the sport and taking responsibility for the actions and inactions that have been witnessed have much to answer for and deserve condemnation and removal from involvement in the sport. The longer they stay "in charge" the worse will be the problem, the more difficult will be the reversal of FINA's transgressions, and the longer will any rectification take.

A new Bureau, a new FINA is in order!

Brent S. Rushall Ph.D.,R.Psy


Rocky said...

I couldn't agree more. They need to get rid of these ridiculous suits. It should be like track cycling. The athletes should all be wearing the same basic swimming gear.

Anonymous said...

At a gala now I don't appreciate the winners in these suits. Where as a race at one time would inspire me, get me excited and on my feet I have a strong feeling of wanting to boo. I guess wrestling went this way. It has gone now and I am very sure so will swimming because the grass roots cannot in the end support the cost of these suits let alone the morality of what was once an honest sport of integrity.

tr3v said...

Where do you draw the line though? The lowest common denominator is to have everyone swim naked, but I guess that will encourage plastic surgery :-) I'd rather see it unregulated. It is all part of evolution and these technological advances may benefit us in other ways.

Phil said...

The latest twist is that swimmers wearing the new suits seem to be realizing they can use new techniques to bolster their advantage - witness Bousquet and now others using the "windmill" straight-arm in the freestyle. Now this may be a "Fosbury flop" type moment - where everyone suddenly realizes they were doing it wrong before - but more likely surely this technique was sub-optimal before and is only favored wearing a fancy suit. Next we'll have suits optimized for each stroke!

I really don't understand FINA's attitude. In the past they were quite attentive to potentially disruptive changes - remember when backstroke swimmers discovered they could go faster by kicking entirely underwater - and banned them pretty promptly. I think they should not only enforce a no-buoyancy rule but also (since it's been suggested much of the advantage of these suits may come from reshaping the athlete's body) restrict the size of suits to the "traditional" dimensions of men's and women's swim-wear.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI everyone

Thanks for the comments and opinion, very interesting.

In terms of standardizing the equipment, I feel they should set a limit on the length of the costume (eg. just above the knee is the maximum length) and say that no upper body covering is allowed.

In terms of the material, I'm no expert, but if they clamped the size of the body that can be covered, then material becomes less important.

The downside of all this, of course, is that it effectively prohibits companies from trying to gain an advantage in the market. That's a big problem, and not one i have a solution for. But I feel the credibility of the sport supercedes the market's search for innovation and so the restriction should be in place.

As Rocky says, cycling made these decisions a long time ago, and they standardized things.

However, to respond to Phil, I think a big part of this particular problem is that there are incentives we're unaware of. Perhaps they are financial, who knows. But I think FINA's slow response to this is more than ineptitude, there are forces at play here, money involved and I don't see an end to it. The manufacturers are now running the sport, not FINA.


Rob Smith said...

it is, of course, as tr3v says, a question of where you draw the line. if it were not, then we wouldn't need any comittees. but one supposes that they have the interests of the sport at heart.

it reminds me of similar issues that cropped up in my (one time) sport, rowing. rowing is obviously a sport that has quite steep barriers to entry: you have to live near a river, have a crew and access to a boat (which can cost $$$s). it is, perhaps, harder to draw the line in the case of a sport where there is no "natural" ideal to which one can aspire. should plastic boats have been allowed? well, it seems to me to still be within the "spirit" of rowing and there are even very expensive, light boats of wooden construction still being made for competition.

however, a number of years ago someone had a fantastic idea: instead of the rowers thundering up and down the boat on a sliding seat, use a fixed seat but let the pivot point slide and be attached to their feet. the results were immediate. if i remember right, chris balieu beat steve redgrave (who later went on to win 5 olympic gold medals in 5 consecutive olympic games) in a henley final with a sliding rigger boat. it was subsequently banned.

also, more akin to the swimming suit, there was the idea of adding microgroroves to the shell of the boat - rather like a shark skin. again, a noticeable improvement but not allowed for competition. i also heard of the idea of adding a device which dropped a thin film of oil for the boat to slick through. banned.

all these decisions are difficult decisions to make. the point is that they should be made by competent people who hold the interests of the sport closer to heart than the interests of the manufacturers. why? because if the manufacturers suffer the sport continues unfettered but if the sport suffers the manufacturers suffer too.

to protect the sport you have to protect the acheivements of those who have dedicated their lives to the sport for otherwise, newcomers will be discouraged. also, those who are currently acheiving records have the right to an unquestionable victory, unclouded by technical issues. lastly, the spectators will eventually become bored if swimming becomes like formula 1. (actually, i was interested to see that even formula 1 is considering capping the investment allowed on the cars - quite how they can prove that there are no backhanders going on i don't know...)

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Heavy Usker

What a great post, thank you for that! You made some really good points, and it's interesting to compare across sports.

I think you hit the nail on the head regarding incentives...

Thanks again

Alvaro Belloso said...

Interesting topic... especially the "slippery slope" that swimming seems to have gotten into by not implementing early regulations to deal with swimming suit design.

I wonder if we can extrapolate this to running shoes? Are shoes which have built in "energy return" systems (Spira, Newton) something akin to the LZR suits for swimming? Curious to see early decisions from the USTAF/IAAF intervene early on these could lead to much more siginifcant issues in the future. Just a random thought. Keep up the good work guys.

Alvaro Belloso said...

Disclaimer (from my previous post): I run with Newtons (for short runs and races).

TriExpert said...

Did UCI invalidate the velodrome records set prior to the "rollback" to conventional geometry?

I think they did; and if they did, so could (ought!) FINA...

Vava said...

Great post. I used to swim back when you still had to touch the wall with your hand on a backstroke turn, so I may be an old fart by swimming standards. But back then the only thing being questioned were the East German "women", while people like Matt Biondi and Janet Evans were breaking records on training and will. These suits are making a mockery of history - it's the same thing if Major League Baseball decided that aluminum bats were to be used and the new home run records were valid in comparison to the old wooden bat records. Whatever! Personally I hope that these ridiculous swim suits are banned, but swimming wants more press than it has gotten in the past, which is none. What's next, little propellers all over these suits?

Brian said...

Simple solution for the men, all swimsuits must not go below the knee, nor above the belly button.

I am sure that a similar system could be put in place for the women.

Rob Smith said...

hmmm.... i think they actually should ban the new fangled material that is being used. to limit the surface area covered is a simple solution but it will still presumably benefit the wearers, perhaps women more (ok, this doesn't really matter).

as far as i am concerned, the point is (a) that the suits appear to make a significant improvement - perhaps more than steriods and (b) that the suits are prohibitively expensive.

runnerinsight.com said...

Swimming is one great sport.It is I think the most excited since you are able to know the game result like after a minute or so. : ) Well, costumes on swimming is fun weird! Whatever the suit it is, just swim fair and be honest your preparations. that is far beyond enough already to make a best swimmer and a best game always!

Chris said...

I understand that people feel that the suits should be banned due to unfair advantages, but when we see all of these records falling (not just on the Olympic level, but at all levels of NCAA's and high school and age group swimming) it is clearly too late to ban the suits. What should happen is putting limits on suit manufacturers and only allow the suits that are out now and do not have anymore technological advances in the sport. Suits have been constantly evolving. The LZRs, Blue Seventies, and Tracers are not the first major step forward for suits. People used to race in paper or wool suits, but no one would ever consider reverting to those suits now because of the new norms of suits that everyone is used to. If people feel that the suit technology is getting out of hand then there should be limits set to what is currently out and then there will be no technological advantage for breaking records at the next Olympics, but it is too late to ban the LZR or the Blue Seventy.

Anonymous said...

although the suits are making a huge impact on the times, fred has swam amazing times since beijing even withought the suit, he has no doubt become a better swimmer in the past year though his training and dedication... he deserves the record and the recognition, not the suit

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi there

TO the last anonymous poster - how do you know that? How do you know that Fred has swum amazing times since Beijing without the suit? By "amazing", do you mean he has swum times close to the world record? Has he swum under 21 seconds in any other suit?

Of course not - it's the suit, not the swimmer. Yes, he's probably still one of the best in the world, but you don't cleave 0.34s off a world record because you suddenly started training now, after 8 to 10 years of being a pro swimmer to begin with.

He's jumped forward ten levels, and the suit helped do it.