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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Swimsuit debate: Differing perspectives

Two points of view, as the swimsuit debate continues

One of the positive effects of the ongoing swimsuit debate is the range of perspectives it brings forward. I had planned a detailed post on swimming world records, a historical look at how swimming has evolved, largely in response to some your comments regarding how what we're seeing is progress and natural evolution.

But then a couple of very diverse opinions arrived, courtesy of Mark (a reader) and Jim (our maven, who sends me great pieces on this issue every day!). Both are worthy of our attention, and so I have decided to take the "lazy" option and delay my own swimming world record analysis until the Rome World Champs are over, and instead post these perspectives.

The "welcome to progress view"

First of all is a comment from Mark, received in response to yesterday's post. It's without doubt one of the best comments we've received (and we've had some great ones), because it's succinct, to the point, black and white. It's on the cynical side, but it's realistic, and it's difficult to fault the interpretation of the current situation. It's shown below, unedited, in lighter grey text:

It was inevitable that technology eventually reached swimming. What is surprising is that it took so long. As much as the purists or traditionalists hate the thought, swimming is now changed forever. There is no going back or delaying the inevitable by trying to ban technological development of the swimming costume. It will not do to have the elite swimmers of the world swimming slower than a club or casual swimmer simply because they are not allowed to use the technology, however fair it makes the competition. It is like banning technology from a Formula 1 car and having a normal passenger vehicle able to lap faster around a track.

As Einstein pointed out, you can’t solve problems at the same level as you created them. As ludicrous as this sounds, we must now accept that swimming and power boating are pretty much synonymous, the only difference being that one is powered by a human machine. What swimming has to do is to accept the technology and manage it to make it as fair as possible for all the elite competitors. So, as for power boating or motorsport, lay down rules and regulations, introduce costume checks, and then either go with a F1 scenario where the manufacturers are allowed to develop their own costumes within certain guidelines or have a NASCAR type scenario where a finite number of manufacturers create a “chassis” and the swimmers have a choice of one of these for their event.

I can almost hear the traditionalists being sick. But their nausea is going to get worse because athletics and road running can’t be far behind. After all, we already have a bionic man who is cleared to run if he makes the qualifying times. It is a short step to aerodynamic suits, body implants, and special shoes. Pure, unadulterated, mano-a-mano competition is very close to being history altogether. Drugs put paid to fair competition a long time ago already. Kicking and screaming won’t help. It is time to accept and manage the situation.

Swimming has now joined all those other sports where one can’t be sure if it is the man or the equipment doing the winning. Because this whole scenario is so new, there are obviously disparities right now, but these will soon be wiped out. Speedo will not sit still and will be back on a par with the other manufacturers sooner rather than later. And as with other sports such as golf and tennis, all the elite competitors will have access to the latest technologies and then it just remains a case of seeing who can utilise them the best. It may not be pretty, but welcome to progress.

Pretty much spot on, from start to finish. It brings a different perspective to the debate, which is why I enjoyed it so much. Many of you have been saying the same things, and it certainly does make one think twice about how the problem can be solved, now that it has been created. A great quote from Einstein, and a dilemma for swimming.

I'll be honest, I cannot see the simple solution here. The more I think about it, the more I believe that for FINA to ban the suits outright would drive a stake through the commercial heart of the swimming world, because the suit manufacturers are integral to the commercial survival of swimming. Imagine legislation was passed that said all cars had to be black sedans with an engine size of 1.6L - pretty soon, BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Audi would be out of business. Is that where swimming will go? There's a danger of it!

Here's an even worse scenario, for the swimmers themselves - why would a swimsuit manufacturer even consider a sponsorship of an individual swimmer (or a national federation) when all suits are the same and as basic as possible? Answer - they wouldn't. If there is no opportunity to differentiate themselves from competitors, then manufacturers would have no incentive to show the world that Michael Phelps chooses Speedo, or that Alain Bernard swims with Arena. It wouldn't matter, and therefore the value of sponsorship would be massively reduced. Commercial "competition" would be negated, and the victims will be the athletes. Integrity of performance is one view, commercial survival of swimmers is another.

The coach perspective: Implications from the top, to the bottom

The next perspective I want to share is that of a coach. This is a letter written by John Leonard, who is the Executive Director of the American Swimming Coaches Association. It's a little less succinct, and not quite as direct and elegant as Mark's post above, but it brings out some key points which I haven't yet posted, and which may be new to you as you follow this debate. The more I think about it, the more I think that this aspect of equality at the children's level might be the biggest danger posed by the suits. I'm not sure I agree with all of the arguments in the letter, but there's a lot to chew on. I've posted the letter in grey, with some "running commentary" from me in black at various intervals in the letter.

Over the past 18 months, the swimming world has been a frenzy of controversy over the emergence of technology in swimsuits. At the recent World Championships in Rome, the constant and overwhelming refrain about suits, echoed the volume and intensity of the last time we were in Rome for a World Championships,when the topic was doping....drugs distorting our sport...in 1994. Fifteen years later, the emotional topic was the new high tech suits that have swept through the sport from the World Championship level down to the local park district championships in the summer league. The parallels were impossible to miss.

FINA, in an unprecedented move at its Congress in Rome, banned the use of all “non-textile” materials from suits beginning in 2010, and limited the coverage of the body to “knees to navel for men” and “knees to shoulder straps” for women. 168 nations voted in favor of the restrictions, against a mere 6 in opposition. (who apparently did not understand the word “textile”) This in the face of strong opposition to the move by the sitting President and Executive Director of the FINA organization. Amazing and never seen before. The USA delegation initiated the restrictions and led the opposition. Why such a strong reaction in opposition to the existing plastic and rubber suits?

[Extra-ordinary that the vote was passed 168 to 6. A couple of people have said that we've seen this before - I can't imagine that strong an opinion existed from within a sport.]

A parent new to the sport, from a middle class background, might well say “hey, why not? Technology marches on! Equipment gets better. Why not let my son/daughter wear one of the fancy new suits and swim faster?”

Its a valid question that requires a thoughtful answer. Here it is.

The answer revolves around two words, with of course, a considerable amount of “side data” that adds to the intensity of the discussion and the strength of the resolution to end the problem worldwide.

Those two words are “Maximizing” and “Enhancing”.

Quality lane lines “maximize” the opportunity of the athlete to swim fast, with minimum turbulence in the lane. (you should have seen the waves in the pool back in the 60’s and 70’s.)

Good Goggles allow the athlete to see the turns, see their competitors, and comfortably compete.(to say nothing of allow them to train hard for hours....impossible in the chlorine pool without goggles...in the old days, yardage and performance was a fraction of what it is today.) Goggles Maximize the opportunity of the athlete to work hard.

Evolution in coaching techniques in training and biomechanics allow the athletes to Maximize their ability to benefit from their time in the sport.

Swimsuits, up until approximately the year 2000, and certainly until early 2008, were designed to maximize the opportunity of the athletes to go fast....the manufacturers designed suits to “get out of the way of the water”. Less suit, less friction with the water, less drag, tighter fit, and better materials MAXIMIZED the ability of the athlete to perform to their highest earned level.

[The line between "maximize" and "enhance" is very grey indeed! I would be cautious to stake my argument on such a volatile term, which can be taken to mean different things by different people! You may decide that goggles also enhance performance, depending on your starting position. Or that the suits maximize talent. The line shifts very quickly. I appreciate the principle, but it's difficult to avoid this become "circular" in nature - it all depends on where you draw the line between the two.]

Beginning in 2008, manufacturers took advantage (and must be applauded for doing so, within the existing rules, which were close to non-existent) of the idea of designing suits to ENHANCE the ability of the athlete to swim faster. A line had been crossed. Designed suits incorporated plastics, rubberized material and new design criteria, to enhance the ability of the athlete to be buoyant in the suits (riding higher makes you faster), wrapped more tightly (compressing the “jiggly parts” makes you MUCH faster) and shed water from the plastics and rubber materials much more effectively, thereby reducing the drag of the suits remarkably.

Since February 2008, 158 world records have been set by elite athletes. [I didn't know it was this many - amazing figure, surely unprecedented in the sport] Their ability to perform has moved from being “maximized” by their swimsuits, to being “enhanced” by their swimsuits. This rate of improvement is absolutely farcical in the historical context of over 100 years of our sport. At the world championships, new world records were receiving polite applause akin to the “golf clap” for a good shot, rather than the historical roars of appreciation that a swimming crowd used to provide when a human barrier went down, as it infrequently did, by great athletes at the peak of their power.

How does this translate down to the local pool?

Pretty simple. The manufacturers don’t make any money by selling suits to the elite athlete. They give the suits away to them. They count on age group swimmers watching the “big guys” and wanting the same suits and equipment.

And lo and behold, the same miraculous benefits accrue to 12 year old Sam and Samantha when they put on the “magic suits” in their local championships. The time drops are miraculous, the smiles are, literally, “priceless” and child, mom and dad are all happy.

Wait a second. That suit just ripped. wow. How did that happen? How much did it cost? Wow! You paid $500 for a suit that Sam just put his foot through, rendering it a $500 broken garbage bag? Uh-oh., well, honey, get him another one....we can’t have Joe Jones’s son Pete beat him in the 200 free tomorrow. Teeth Grit. This is a kids sport? We now have $1000 in suits so far.

And of course, all those magic benefits only last 7-15 swims, so good for maybe 2-3 meets, unless its a championship and your child swims 6 events and makes finals in all events...in which case its $500 a meet.

Lets see, $500 a meet, we go to 2 meets a month, 10 months of the year....Honey, its gonna cost us $10,000 Just for Samantha’s suits this year!

Well, the solution is simple....just wear the suits for the championship meet and wear your regular suit the rest of the time. OK. Good.
But, Samantha’s 58.5 100 free with the magic suit on, just became a 1:02 100 free with the old suit on. Smiles gone. Gone. From Samantha, from Mom. From Dad. Oh well.

[This whole section is very emotionally written, surprising from a high-ranking official, I must confess. I'm not sure of the intended target of the letter, but it's colloquial rather than professional, which I don't think would make much impact on those for whom it should be important (FINA officials). But still, it is a valuable point in the debate. Will parents have to buy these top-end suits? Cycling is expensive, does that restrict access and opportunity? It would be a shame for swimming to go this way, where financial capacity determines junior success]

And of course, there are some other objections as well.

First, the magic suit deal is like paying for your child to have instant improvement. Is that what you want your child to learn from the sport? Or do you want them to learn to persevere, EARN improvement with hard work, attention to detail, paying attention to the coach and, shall we say it again...”Working Hard”. Or do you want them to learn that you can always “pay your way” with cash to what you want?

“Earn it, or buy it”. Which do you want to teach? Answer carefully, parents.

Second, the suit does not affect everyone the same. The thin, fit swimmer will benefit marginally by it. The overweight swimmer will swim like a young seal in it. Spending the same $500 on two children will yield radically different results. Not a fair competition at all. Is that what anyone wants?

Third, and its seems unnecessary to say this...but if you just buy 3 suits a year, that’s $1500 or MORE. (Today, purchasing one of the great European suits online from the USA will cost you $900...with no guarantee of fit, durability or return-ability, and about 30% of them RIP on the first attempt to put them on...no refund, folks.) Do we really want age group and high school swimmers to have to spend that kind of money to BUY success rather than work for it? It doesn’t make our sport a middle class sport, it makes it a sport for wealthy families.

Are you pooh-poohing that? Wait till your son or daughter gets beat the first time by someone whose mommy or daddy could afford a more expensive piece of plastic and rubber than you can. The bitter taste in your mouth is not fun. Not much in the way of “sport” there.

So, in answer to the local official who asked “Why are “they” (FINA officials) wasting time with worrying about THAT? Don’t they have better things to do?”

The answer is no, the suit debacle is the most important thing that any of us can attend to. It preserves the heart and soul of our sport....which is reverence and appreciation for the hard work, attention to detail, courage and teamwork required to be a fine competitive swimmer and to learn to succeed with those life-skills. Instead of with your Daddy’s wallet.

The Congress (not the Ruling Bureau) of FINA took the rules into their own hands after the Bureau had time and again failed to establish the rules necessary to keep our sport vital, credible and important. Bravo for them.

All the Best, John Leonard

All in all, apart from the tone of the letter, it raises an interesting counter-point. I'm not a parent, I have no experience in coaching young children, and so I cannot speak from experience. However, the sport of swimming, which is heavily time-based and where talent is identified on the basis of time needs to ensure more than perhaps others sports that it allows young children equal opportunity to express their talent. If financial limitations prevent this, then it would indeed be a shame.

Then again, other expensive sports have done fairly well, but perhaps lose out on talent for this very reason. And finally, over time, the suits will become cheaper, and so this argument is not necessarily a great argument for banning suits outright.

I'd love to hear your views, as always!



smackrabbit said...

What I haven't seen is what the benefits of these suits are at lower levels of the sport, only for those that are already world class swimmers. Going back to the cycling example, it's a very expensive sport if you get to the upper end.

However, many of those higher performance tools (disc and deep rim wheels, aero frames, aero helmets, aero bars) don't really start to offer benefits, or at least come close to maximizing those benefits until you hit 20 MPH on the bike. It takes a good amount of training to be up and averaging 20 MPH over a long or hilly course, so they aren't going to instantly add 1-2 MPH to my speed.

I'm a pretty awful swimmer in the grand scheme of things. In the triathlons I've done I'm out of contention by the end of the swim, no matter how well I do on the bike or the run. Are these suits going to cut seconds off my time for every 100m, or do I already have to be at a high level before they start to make any real improvements? If these suits aren't able to make a real difference until you get to that world class speed level, then it shouldn't really impact youth swimming (and maybe the manufacturers can just avoid making them in child sizes).

I don't think you can really reverse the technology, but if they ban them below a certain level to prevent the cost issue for parents, then I'm OK with it.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Smackrabbit

Fair question.

I'm told, interestingly enough, that these suits actually work more in the slower swimmer, because they correct the body position in the water, keeping the body much higher and horizontal, which is really the key to swimming fast - a weaker swimmer, who tends to fall into compromised positions, stands to benefit more than a pro.

I have a few colleagues in EUrope who coach and do scientific testing on Masters swimmers, and they have told me that they are seeing enormous improvements (3 seconds/100m) in older swimmers. They say this is because the other benefit of the suit is that it "compresses" the body into a better shape, and the older, less professional swimmers tend to have more to compress (forgive the euphemism)!

Where the suit will work better for the pros is on drag resistance, because we know that the faster you go, the greater the benefit, like for cycling.

But it seems that the other advantages may be even greater for weaker swimmers. Of course, I'm generalizing and in any population, you'll have "responders" and non-responders.


Will said...

I hope we don't see FINA make the same mistakes the UCI did in managing technology in cycling! The rules the UCI came up with actually increase the cost of the sport's equipment at the high end because the architecture had been locked in, meaning many improvements would only come in the form of more exotic (and expensive) manufacturing techniques. FINA needs to get the manufacturers in at the very beginning to give them a more complete picture of the impact of the rulings.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Will

Good point. Here's an idea - what FINA needs to do is gather around all the governing bodies from sports where technology has been introduced (which is a pretty long list - rowing, cycling, canoeing, motorsport, even gymnastics) and use their experience to manage the situation a little!

As far as consulting goes, the opportunity for that came in Feb 2008 - one problem, not really discussed so far, is that Speedo is an official partner for FINA. Makes discussion across the board difficult...


David Monico said...

Same issue that hampers the running world - the manufactures fund the athletes and thus control the rules. My favorite model thus far is the Nascar model, where the athlete is allowed to take in what seems an infinite amount sponsors. In USA Athletics, an athlete is bound to one sponsor; the shoe companies. If everybody came to the table for the benefit of all sport, perhaps some interesting conclusions could be made about the future of technology and sponsorships. Too bad I'm a dreamer...

Not entirely relevant to the debate, but when I got to the sentence about making all cars black, I had to pass along a link to the debate in California put forth by the California Air Resources Board to ban all black cars. If anything I hope it makes you all laugh (although the argument is interesting) http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/03/26/california-may-ban-black-cars/

Debi Bernardes said...


As a parent of a college swimmer and an age group/high school coach I totally agree with John Leonard's emotional post.

It is so true! The swimsuit industry now has the parent in a headlock. The families who have a tough enough time coming up with team fees will never be able to afford one of the magic suits. And that is what they are....magic.

The playing field at the elite level is now basically equal because they all have the suit (for free), but it will never reach that equality at the age group or high school level.

You'll have some swimmers in their 'Porsche's' and others in their 'Chevy' swimsuits at the State Championships, Conference Championships, and even at the National levels.

Those kids know that they have a snowballs chance in Hades of winning their event against an equal competitor wearing the 'Porsche' suit. Is this an equal playing field?

I'm all for progress, but when it starts to make the sport a joke, the swimsuit industry should wake up and do some serious thinking of how they are alienating the very people who put money in their pockets. The age group athlete parents.



Meg & Dave said...

The first letter you posted is interesting, if cynical. The commenter says, "There is no going back or delaying the inevitable by trying to ban technological development of the swimming costume." This commenter seems to be indicating that we could allow, for example, great big foam suits that increase the effective length of the swimmer and cause them to float like a small boat. A line must be drawn somewhere right? Why not at a point that keeps suits at the "maximizing" point? No added floatation and fiber based material finishes. I have no problem, and I doubt anyone would have problems with constricting suits as long as their surface is fibrous.

It seems the new suits are doing two things: altering the submergence of the swimmer with buoyancy, and altering the boundary layer characteristics of the swimmer. All frictional resistance results from wetted surface and boundary layer characteristics. All swimmers are in a fully turbulent mode, so the boundary layer changes from the new suits should be essentially the same no matter the level of the swimmer. The elite swimmers may have no use for the constricting characteristics of the suits, but you can achieve this with traditional fabrics. What I'm getting at is that the real "enhancement" here is in the floatation and rubberized/specialized finishes.

I know just enough about friction on things moving in the water to be dangerous. Anyone here an expert on friction on swimmers? Would it make sense to say fabrics must have similar or worse boundary layer characteristics than shaved human skin? It would be easy to say the suits must have a negligible saturated buoyancy.

This is all very interesting... sorry if I'm rambling.

Colenso said...

G'day guys

Welcome to the world of little league! You think that the adult world of professional sport is a political minefield? You ain't seen anything until you become a parent, a coach or a club official in the world of junior sport.

I don't know anything about junior sport in South Africa, but here in Australia junior sport or little league rules. The tiny handful of adult pros who earn a living from sport are just the tip of the iceberg, the bit you see above the waterline. What is not visible is the nine tenths below the water, but that supports the tip that's always on display.

Here in Australia there are many swimming coaches who earn a substantial part of their living from coaching only kids. The kids' mothers (mainly) cart their offspring to the pool early in the morning, often driving incredibly long distances, day after day, year after year, often for a decade from the age of five to fifteen. What’s it all for? All in the hope that one day little Gavin or Chantelle will prove to be an Olympic champion.

I imagine it's a similar story in the USA. That’s why John Leonard's letter is so emotional. It because Leonard evidently believes that the hi-tec high cost swim suits will effectively destroy junior swimming comp in the US. And that would mean the end of the livelihoods of his members. So of course he feels strongly about it - because junior sport is no longer about healthy exercise, not in countries like the USA or Australia. It's all about the ambitions of an aspirational middle class (which, note, in the US and Australia is a euphemism for whites. Few Afro-Americans or Australian Aborigines or Torres Strait islanders swim competitively).

Personally, I hate it all with a vengeance. I refuse to watch any sport anymore because I hate it so much, even the many sports in which I continue to participate as an amateur. I hate the way that adults in Australia vest all their emotional energy in their children instead of sorting themselves out. Instead of participating in sport themselves, Australians throw everything into getting their kids into sport, and then end up just watching. Why do you think that Aussies have overtaken the Yanks as the world's fattest? Because all that most Australians now do (like most Americans) is watch pro sport and dream about their kids making it one day up onto the rostrum like their heroes.

Kelvin Koch said...

There is a lot more to this than what is going on in Rome. This has been brewing for over 25 years and many of the coaches and athletes complaining now, did not complain one bit when the advantage over their predecessors was theirs during the past two decades. Now we will have rules where men will be competing in suits that have not been used in elite competition on a regular basis in over 15 years. 25 years with the drag reducing fabrics of pre-2008 suits that are being removed as well.

As for the cost issue: The "paper suits" that started this in the mid-'80's cost over $150 for the girls. And they would last one session of a meet. There would be no "jammers" without the introduction of the "paper suit". A simple brief couldn't do much, drop the material down the leg to reduce drag and add compression where it could really matter and we had $125 suits for guys that lasted one meet session.

As a company we will provide whatever suits the rules require. I just don't think this has been thought out enough by anybody to avoid a long list of court battles that are about to happen. Now that men and women will be told they have to compete at a distinct handicap to those who preceded them over the past 2 decades there will be lawsuits over this issue. Their funding ultimately comes from world rankings and records. No one in their right mind can say that those who set records from at least 1992 - 2007 did not have an advantage over what is about to happen, now this next generation is being punished for what went on long before this week. Ultimately the courts will decide what is "fair" for these athletes in light of full disclosure of this issue...and it's not good for the sport to have that happen.

As a manufacturer I can see a lot of changes in this rule forcing all of us to have to scramble for "availability" due to last minute changes in rules for many seasons to come.

Kelvin Koch
Rocket Science Sports - Swimming

TriExpert said...

John is verbose and emotional indeed, but god bless him. (You too, Debi.)

Has anyone through the course of this debate brought in the example of Olympic or one-design sailing? It's not a world I know intimately (I did 35+ years ago), but if the rules of that sport still function as they did then, the mano-a-mano character of competition hasn't been lost.

TriExpert said...

I meant to add, UCI brilliantly finessed an analogous issue (I'd put it more bluntly: "Rectified their mistake") when they "rolled back" their equipment rules for track racing.

Can't FINA do the same?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello all

Thanks for the comments. As always, I'll try to do justice to each one:

To David:

Thanks for the link - good laugh! You're certainly right about the sponsors, but I don't see that changing given the sport - it's limited with regards to sponsorships, whereas Nascar has evolved (or been forced to evolve) a commercial model that allows this broad and extensive sponsorship model. I can't see how swimming or athletics would achieve the same, because they're much less attractive sponsorship propositions than motorsports (for one reason, the sale of product is restricted, limiting returns, whereas for cars, everyone spends money and the niche market spends a lot!)

But you're right, in principle. Difficult to see that happening, so as you say, it might be a dream!

To Debi

Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I certainly did not intend to dismiss John's arguments, I actually thing they are VERY valid (just his emotional tone doesn't speak very well to the people he needs to win over!). But you're right, it's a dilemma, and the more I think about it, the more I believe the biggest problem for the sport is actually that the suits will change the nature of swimming at the bottom - the participation level. And that is a very big problem.

So you're 100% right, the parents bear the brunt and we don't see enough of this in the debate. Having said all this, the sport might also be "committing suicide" if it bans the suit, because it's biting the hand that feeds it, and it doesn't have many willing feeders!

To Energetich20

Good points - when Speedo came out with that LZR material, their reason for using polyurethane was that it was tested by NASA, and found to have "zero resistance". That was the big "selling point", and they promoted it heavily. So I think it's fair to say that polyurethane is far superior as a boundary layer!

Perhaps the issue is buoyancy though, and where's where my knowledge runs thin. I don't know why it's not simple to test for buoyancy effects, and simply ban costumes that add to buoyancy. So I agree that we should say that suits should have negligible buoyancy, but what this story has shown is that it may not be so simple...unless they know but are just forging ahead anyway...!

Hi Colenso:

Good points, I see the same attitudes in rugby here in SA. And you're right, it's a big industry. As I said to Debi above, the more I think about it, the more I realise that this issue, children and parents, reprsents the biggest danger to the sport. So yes, I can see why John is so emotional, it's understandable (not that this condones his writing register in a formal letter like this one!)

To me, this threatens to change the nature of the sport, and make it more like cycling, where money is a barrier to entry for participation. Those in cycling, tennis, horse-riding (any 'expensive' sport) will say no problem, but I can certainly understand why swimmers feel the way they day, and parents in particular!


Anonymous said...

I don't think any of mr. Leonards arguments wash. I sympathise with his argument about crating an uneven playing field for junior athletes. This is easily solved by banning the suits at a junior level. When the athletes turn for example 18 they get to use the suits.

As for the argument about not having to work for progress, this is obviously not correct. The only difference now is that the best will seim faster. they will still have to work just as hard to be the best.

Your argument about it not being a level playing field at these championsships is a good one, but this is a temporary situation. In a couple of years time the pace of innovation will have slowed and the difference between suits will be small (but it will still allow the manufacturers to brag about having the fastest suit).

If the sports fans still have problems with accepting progress, how about taking a page out of cross country skiings book.

In the mid 80 a mediocre american skier by the name of Bill Coch revolutionized the sport by inventing the skating technique. In Norway this technique got all kinds of put down from the conservative skiing establishment but in the end an elegant solution was found. A new discipline was created an one competed in both skating and the traditional styles.

The same can be done for swimming. Compete both with and without the suits.

Derek said...

I haven´t read the comments of others yet (I´ll do that later today if I have time) but I wanted to add slightly different opinion.
My sport is running, so that is what I’m basing my opinion on. Many people say that running is one of the cheapest sports; all you need is shoes. If you go to a local race, this holds true. The vast majority have their shorts, shirt, shoes and socks. Everything is cheap. But if you look at the high end line of shoes from each company, the GPS watches, nutritional supplements etc, suddenly running is quite expensive, and surely out of the budget of many. Does everyone buy these extra gadgets? Not at all.
What often happens is when one runner shows exceptional talent, maybe winning a few small races while running with the basics, the local running store often “sponsors” the runner buy giving them free shoes and equipment. The runner is happy, because he or she gets new equipment, the store is happy because its good advertising and the manufacturer is happy because they are receiving money for their product. They would be happier if they could get everyone to buy their equipment but it doesn´t happen because it´s just too expensive for the average runner.
This may be what we witness in swimming. Your typical children’s meet will not have these suits. At upper levels of local sport, maybe a state meet or something, you will see these suits, not purchased by the competitor, but by the school. In any sport, there comes a point when one needs to decide how serious they want to continue. It is the same in running, cycling, football/soccer, rugby, cricket, baseball, you name it. There always comes a point where one needs to make a significant investment to continue improving at a decent speed. This may not always be an investment in equipment, it may be an investment in a coach, or a football school or a nutritionalist, but the choice needs to be made. It may not be such a horrible thing that swimming has joined the rest of the sports, and like it was said yesterday, it was inevitable.
I understand it is difficult to compare running to swimming because we don´t have "magic suits" that make us go faster, but the idea of this technology is to improve our training habits, and avoid injury, which theoretically makes us go faster over time.

J.C. Marecki said...

While thinking through the points in this debate, one similar situation I considered that has not been mentioned is baseball. Perhaps the most critical piece of equipment for a player at all levels of play is the bat and how it reacts to the ball when the two meet. Curiously enough, the least technologically advanced bats (wooden) are used at the highest level, while the recreational or club-level players use the most advanced (metal). Even though less talented players are able to hit baseballs farther and more often than the greatest major league player, this does not diminish the accomplishments of the professionals. So I don't subscribe to the argument that a sport must allow technology to dictate advances in equipment.

Unfortunately, the situation at the youth baseball level is often as predicted, with those able to afford better bats competing with those who can not.

I guess the only real consolation is that it is much easier to share a bat than it is to share a swim suit...

Anonymous said...

Just a few thoughts on the topic;
I apologize if I - ignorantly - should repeat arguments.

On the topic of buoyancy just one comment: swimmers should remain swimmers and not be boats.

I recently had a serious idea (even if it might sound a bit humorous):
Install racing teams (like in F1 or cycling)! At least give it a thought: "Now Michael Phelps in lane 3, starting for Speedo Professional with the latest XYZ-technology... Representing Arena ___ Team in lane 4 Paul Biedermann in....." and so on. Pit stops included, allowing mechanics to screw and tear the suits in form (especially with female swimmers ; ))
This could create enormous commercial attention (of course it won't happen because swimming is too much nation-based)

Different leagues for "naked, traditional" swimmers and "hi-tec" swimmers, as proposed by 'Anonymous' at 4:13 p.m.?
Not a good idea. As you will surely see, main media interest - after an initiation phase with a lot of attention - will of course be with the faster swimmers, inevitably those with better suits.

As anyone will agree, it would be fascinating to see some of Rome's final races repeated with every swimmer wearing the same suit. (same conditions, of cours; or races on ANY level of performance allowing statistical discrimination.)

How about a kind of placebo effect? Can't it be one particular swimmer is faster (partly), because he knows he's wearing "wonder suit" (TM)

One should take into account swimming is one of the sports still ongoing major progress NOT due to new suits: technical refinement, more trainig of any kind...
Take Michael Phelps' improvement of his own famous WR in the 200m butterfly by about half a second - wearing the same (?) Speedo suit he wore in Beijing. Improvement is possible.
A short current addition: Peirsol managed to swim an incredible 1:51.9 right now, a mere 4/10 above Phelps's fly mark. Almost everyone in this final swam bare-chested.

A not-too-small fraction of the recent improvements cannot be reduced to the latest generation of swimsuits!

A perfect swimsuit does NOT make a mediocre swimmer a super star. Mark Spitz e.g. would be, well, nowhere. Such a suit makes the best, well, a bit (???) better; I'm quite convinced Phelps would'nt have beaten Biedermann in the same suit (unfortunately I have absolutely NO proof of any kind ^^)

Just my few thoughts, not fully worked out -

Sigmund1 said...

Just wanted to elaborate a little on my earlier comment about mimmicking cross country skiing (for some reason my Google account wouldn't work so it ended up as an anonymous post).

As an earlier comment said, the genie is out of the bottle, and now there's no returning. Everyone has seen how fast it is possible to swim and by banning the suits I fear swimming will shoot itself in the foot.

The hour record in cycling experienced a great revival of interest up untill the banning of aerodynamic bikes positions. After that the interest has been zero.

I think a lot of fans will find the sport a little less interesting when the times are 3 - 6 sec slower than we have seen now.

Again there i s possible to learn something from what cross country skiing has gone through.

In the 70s wooden skis became obsolete, in Norway the conservative establishment fought tooth and nails to ban composite skis. All the same arguments as has been posted in this case were put forward. The only thing they accomplished was that Norwegian skiers went from first to also rans for a few years. Now it seems completely idiotic that someone wanted to stop progress in su8ch a way, and skiing has become infinitaly more enjoyable for the average enthusiast.

As I posted earlier Nwe Norwegians learnt nothing from the wood ski debacle and when progress knocked on the door again with skating, again we fought tooth and nail against. With the same results, for quite a few years we became also rans in our national sport (which is quite traumatic for us Norwegians, we are after all born with skis).

After a couple of years with turtmoil and confusion the idea of competing in to classes, classic and skating surfaced. This is truly a neat solution where everyone gets something.

The pursits get to see swimmers compete without performance enhancing suits and thos of us who think faster, stronger higher includes improving equipment get to see how fast the human body can move through water.

An added bonus with this solution is that one gets to see exactly how much faster the suits are.

After all what separates us from the animals is that we posess brawn AND brain.

Back on the savannah the men who refused to take up the bow and arrow because it made it hunting to easy starved to death.

mcgrathe said...

some good points raised all around, and I'm afraid there have been too many for me to post my views on all of them (yes, I'm feeling a little lethargic)...

However, I'd like to completely disagree with the idea that banning the suits would kill off the commercial swimming world. Assuming that the business model is as mentioned, basically - give our gear to the top guys, and make all the ordinary joes go out and buy it - then the real performance benefits of the equipment is of secondary importance to the glamour, association - and whatever other marketing buzzwords should be used in this situation.
Football boots are a big example of virtually identical products heavily relying on endorsement deals to sell well, bikes have been mentioned as well, and there are plenty of sports in a similar situation (Golf, running, most field sports). I would imagine that the marketing possibilities of having the speedo (as an example) brand associated with Michael Phelps are not that closely tied into the presence or absence of game changing technology.

Brian said...

I used to be a swimmer, from age 10 thru highschool. I wasn't the best, but I was better than your average bear and got pretty immersed in the junior competitions.

It's a simple thing, really. If the suit really does shave off time on the order of seconds, then you have to ban them. No question. In the 100yrd free, the difference of one second is the difference between the top tier and second tier of the team. This is not trivial. This is not like aero wheels or a super slick TT bike in a 10 mile TT where you might be saving a small handful of seconds over the course of 20 minutes. This is the difference between a Pro TT time and a Cat 4!

The rules should be this: If the swimsuit modifies the body position in the water, then it is banned. It should be pretty simple to show that a suit is basically neutrally buoyant. Body position is the holy grail in swimming. I was one of the physically strongest people on my high school team in the weightroom. But I was a second tier swimmer because I didn't have the feel for the water and the refined technique (read: body position) that my faster teammates had. If the suit is modifying the body position, then it is fundamentally modifying the field of competition. It would be as bad as making different swimmers compete in lanes of different lengths.

Surface drag is not the same thing. I think the "slipperiness" of the suit is a secondary effect, as is the "tightness" which pulls in all those chubby parts. Buoyancy is something all together different. A person with bad body position (hips dragging and head down) will suffer regardless of how slippery his suit is. Put him in a suit that all of the sudden corrected his body position, and he'll be significantly faster. Let the suit companies try different fabric or non-fabric materials for their suit.

Just make one simple rule: the suit must be made of material which is neutrally buoyant in water.

Don't restrict materials or manufacturing methods or body cover area. Just dictate it must be made of materials which are neutrally buoyant.

Trihardist said...

Reading the comments was almost as rewarding as the post itself.

Has anyone seen the movie "Pride"? It's a feel-good movie about a black former collegiate All-American who takes a difficult group of inner-city youths and turns them into a championship swim team. A refreshing departure from the dominant tales of rags-to-riches in basketball and American football, which is what we normally see in America.

So, in light of that movie, I have a few thoughts, relevant to an increased scope of popularity and participation in swimming (and again, this is coming primarily from an American point of view).

There are a few sports that lend themselves well to inner-city participation, usually based on the idea that a kid can get to college on a scholarship if he or she works hard enough: basketball has very little equipment involved; American football teams often provide equipment for their players (much easier to share than swimsuits); volleyball requires minimal equipment; track and field requires minimal equipment. Theoretically, swimming would fit right in with these sports, since it *requires* minimal equipment: swimsuit, goggles, swim cap. The introduction of high-tech, high-dollar suits makes the sport primarily the realm of the bourgeoisie, at least at levels that are competitive enough to allow a student to qualify for a scholarship.

On the other hand, as I understand it, in Europe, cycling stands as a way to a better life, and its prohibitively expensive. So maybe there's room for disagreement.

One thing that occurred to me after reading Colenso's comment was that the dominance of Australia's triathlon team (which is based, in my opinion, on having a pool of talented swimmers to draw on) might be compromised if youths are less-inclined to get involved in swimming because they can't afford it. Or if they'll be less inclined to switch from swimming to multisport, because there may be some technological advance in the future that allows them to compete at a higher level.

righteous said...

We should all lighten up a little. Here is a really interesting take on what the future suits should look like and what kind of material should be used.
Be prepared to smile!


righteous said...

Sorry! The link got stuffed, ny bad. Here it is again
fina swimsuit controversy sexy solution

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi All

Thanks for the comments - trihardist pointed out that reading the comments is more rewarding than the post, and it certainly is. The title of the post was "differing perspectives" and everyone has really enriched it with their comments.

So I am sorry I don't have time to address each one, but I'm planning a post a little later today where I'll raise some thoughts now that the World Champs is over. As you'll know, it was a record for records in Rome - 43 were set, compared to 15 from Melbourne, and 25 from Beijing. Quite something.

A lot of thoughts flying around in my head, difficult to sum them all up, so the best is probably to point to this discussion as an illustration of the two sides of the debate and then see what comes in the next few months! One thing I will say is that if they ban the suits now, swimming will certainly be dealt a boredom blow, because I can't see a lot of the latest records going anytime soon. So it might be the last time we see more than a handful of world records in a meeting. Is that good or bad? I don't know - it would look a lot like track and field...

More to come later, and I'll certainly refer readers to this post when I do!

Thanks again for all the comments!


Fernando Beltrami said...

Hi all

Lot of people comparing the effects of technology in swimming with other sports, and i'll just add to it. I was following a swimming blog and the guys were discussing about some of the times during the World Championships. The discussion going on was something like "swimmwer A did 47.14, wearing a speedo LZR. Probably a Jaked would deliver 46.83..." I can agree that you see this kind of discussion often in cycling (aero wheels and etc), but you definetely don't see in runners, for example. Imagine someone saying "Geb didn't break the marathon record because he was on adidas. Nike would low his time by 30 sec. What's my point? Cycling, rowing, sailing, F1 and etc are supposed to be the result of the interaction of men with machines, and therefore any combination of both is a valid one, and th price just comes together. Running and swimming are supposed to be based on human capacity 'alone'. Someone can say that if so we should not wear spikes on tracks anymore, and honestly I don't have a very good answer for that but that (long pause thinking), well, maybe that spikes give anyone the same amount of advantage (is it?!). Or maybe let's just ban the spikes as well ;).

TriExpert said...

Ross, I disagree re: boredom. It took quite a while for many of the 70's eastern bloc and 90's "Ma's Army" records in women's endurance sports to be bettered--indeed, some still stand.

Those sports--and swimming is one of them--managed to hold our interest irrespective of anomalous results from a dark era.

Like 2008/09.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Triexpert

You're right - the point I was trying to make here is that there will be this perception of boredom. It's not mine. I'm all for a sport where world records are broken once every couple of years per event, rather than three times a day! I'm a purist that way!

So you're right, the sport would continue, just as athletics has, because it's about the competition. The WR would take on an even more significant value if it is broken less often.

I actually happened to write this in my latest post, as you were writing your comment, so we're definitely on the same page!


Anonymous said...

I don't agree with John. The age grouper position should not drive, or even influence the debate.

Most parents can't afford to buy these suits as described. Many will buy a max of 4 a year, and that is now part of the cost of the sport.

Sport is never truly fair. A lot of it is money led - the more money you have the better training and equipment you can buy etc.

Most age groupers buy the suits but they are often too big for them, and the suits therefore rarely deliver any true physical benefits. What the parents buy, is a psychological edge, and because little Jon believes he can fly, he spreads his wings and flies away (pardon the pun).

Parents don't have to buy the suits, but if they can afford them, why not? I'd say Australia and the USA do better at swimming than most countries because they have spent more on their swimming facilities than other countries have. Should these other countries cry foul?

The suits are good, and should be allowed to stay. They have made the sport exciting and have allowed new talent to emerge. Like someone else said, if Phelps had worn the same suit as Biedermann in the 200 free finals in Rome, I think he'd have still come 2nd, because there is now a better 200 freestyler in the world.

The effect of the new suits has been overplayed. If Phelps had been wearing a full (as distinct to his half) rubber suit for the 100 fly finals in Rome, everyone would have said - the suit; why can't we just accept that swimming has moved on, and it has moved on for the better, and not try to get the suits banned because an age grouper parent who can't afford a suit is buying 1 every month. Everyday, fools and their money are soon parted... That can't be helped.