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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Swimming records: Final recap of Rome

A final word on the record record-fest in the swimming pools of Rome

There may have been spread-betting prior to swimming's World Championships in Rome, but you'd have been hard-pressed to get anyone to agree that there could possibly be 43 world records in the pool in Rome. The previous record was 29, back in 1976, when drugs were alleged to be giving the swimmers a boost. Beijing saw 25 world records fall, while the previous World Championships in Melbourne in 1997 saw 15 world records.

So 43 world records represents something of an explosion - not entirely unexpected, of course, but nevertheless, the sport has surely never seen such a dramatic leap forward.

The current age of swimming world records - a summary of Rome

On the men's side, 14 events were swum faster than ever before, while on the women's side, only 3 records survived (out of 20 each). The table below is a final summary of the Championships, showing the age of the records in days (measured from today, 4 August). The average age of men's records - 198 days, compared to only 79 days for women's records. However, that men's figure is inflated by what is now the oldest record in swimming by a considerable margin - Grant Hackett's 1500m record.

His time is in fact only one of two across either men's or women's events that dates back to before the Beijing Olympic Games. The big problem for FINA is that if they ban the suits from 2010, this table will start ageing pretty quickly, and very few records will be set. While those in swimming may not care, the excitement generated among casual observers by the record-spree would soon die down, and there is a concern that the sport will suddenly stagnate. Effectively, the egg has been scrambled, and putting it back into the shell now is, well, impossible.

The great debate

The huge debate around the suits has been a source of fascinating reading for me in the last week. I could almost save myself the time of writing this post and simply refer you to the discussion and comments section from our last post, where you have made some telling points and great arguments. It's well worth a read for those who don't usually go through the comments - there are some informed opinions from both sides of the debate. I do apologize for not responding to each, but work has prevented me from doing them justice! Your opinions have come through loud and clear though, thank you!

Me? I'm undecided. I admit that my position on the suits has perhaps softened in the last few weeks - initially, I would have called simply for a ban, as FINA have promised to do from 2010 onwards, but the more I've thought about it, and the more I've read the reasoned responses from those who are advocating that technology happens to be part of sport, the more I question that myself!

The world record issue - one for the purists, but not disasterous

Certainly, the purist in me desires to see world records set by great performances, with the knowledge that I really have seen the greatest swimmer in history swim faster than any other human being ever has. It's difficult to think that when a world record is broken in a semi-final, then the next semi-final, and again in the final! And when the top 5 swimmers all go under the world record time, it's hard to believe you're witnessing a momentous occasion! (and this happened far too regularly!)

I can however acknowledge the argument that says that great swimmers will be remembered for their performances in spite of the transient nature of world records. So Ian Thorpe and Alex Popov's names no longer occupy a place on "current world records". Does it diminish their achievements? Hardly. The question of whether the person replacing them is as great a champion is another issue altogether, of course...

Equality of competition

The other problem is the equality of competition. It seems that for a while yet, some suits will remain better than others. Did we see gold medals being given to the world's best swimmers in Rome? In some cases, yes, definitely. In others, maybe not. Regardless, it hardly seems fair that the winner will either be doubted on the basis of which suit they wore, or the loser will be denied victory for the same reason! This disparity is a problem that I don't think many people would argue is bad for the credibility of the sport. Swimming has always been man vs man (or woman), and suits that overcome natural differences in performance ability change that dynamic.

Then again, the counterpoint is that over time, the technology will even out, and by the end of 2009, all the major manufacturers will have adopted the same designs. That assumes, of course, that FINA actually puts into place proper boundaries with respect to materials and design. If that were to happen, we'd pretty soon be back on an even playing field and it would be man vs man once again. The only difference is that they'd all be swimming much faster than "man from 2007"!

Prohibitive cost for juniors

Then the final argument, which we aired in our previous post on swimming, is that position occupied by parents and coaches, that the legalization of super suits will make swimming prohibitively expensive. At $800 a suit, and with the lifespan of a suit being only a dozen swims (if that, take a look at the picture at the bottom (pardon the pun) of the post), it would elevate swimming into that category of sport that requires substantial money just to compete in. Those involved in swimming, with the most to lose (or spend) are most vocal against this possibility.

This is a valid concern, of course, and parents are coaches are concerned. However, it's not too difficult to ban the suits at junior level, and have a different set of restrictions in the professional ranks. So while I empathize with the current predicament, this too is not an insurmountable problem.

Final verdict?

So, a debate with a point and counterpoint at every turn. FINA has promised to ban the suits from 2010. There are of course implications. As mentioned above, they would effectively be "freezing" many of the records for the forseeable future. Does that matter? If the 2011 World Championships produce five world records instead of 43, will they be undervalued and dismissed as boring? Last year's Beijing Olympics saw three track records broken in men's events. It was hardly boring. If the IAAF World Championships produce more than three world records, they'll go down as fanastic. It's pretty common for only three or four world records to fall each year in athletics. I don't believe this is too big a concern, except perhaps for the neutral observer who thrives on the hype.

The other argument, of course, as pointed out by Vava in the comments, is that each world record (and they would fall eventually - people who are saying they'll last decades are exaggerating) will be even more exciting and spectacular - this can only be a good thing compared to the routine nature of world records in the last 12 months.

I do believe that in terms of commercial rights and sponsorship, for both FINA and the swimmers, the ban on super suits will harm the swimming market. I realise that the manufacturers will still sponsor swimmers because they wish to encourage aspirant children to pick their brand to swim in. However, the standardization of technology and suit design will effectively force on the manufacturer a situation where their only means to differentiate themselves will be on the basis of colour! Given that everyone in the sport will know that one suit is identical to the next, it's difficult to see more than a couple of manufacturers surviving - swimming would be narrowed down and only those with the best production/supply chain or economies of scale would be able to survive. They would, of course, and may even thrive, but the market would effectively close.

Finally, what is most interesting to me is that everyone, from the winners, to the losers are saying the same thing about the suits - ban them. From Michael Phelps, a winner in five events but loser in one (200m freestyle), to the man who beat him, Paul Biedermann, are saying that they look forward to the day when we go back to basic swimsuits. I'm often reminded that my opinion is that of an outsider, someone who follows the sport with a keen interest, but without a vested interest. I can only take particular note of what those with an interest are saying, and to a man and woman, they seem to be asking for the ban.

Therefore, concerns about commercial aspects, sponsor relationships and world record stagnation aside, I do think that the ban is the best option. How much easier would this have been to solve had FINA, back in 2008, created clear guidelines for swimsuits, as everyone was calling for? The whole world saw the problem when Speedo launched the LZR, but unclear boundaries, FINA's inaction, and the natural evolution in technology have scrambled the egg, and getting it back into the shell will prove a slightly more difficult proposition!


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Vava said...

Just a quick point from a former swimmer: if the new records are not removed by FINA, then even ONE new record in any of these events at subsequent World Swimming Championships or equivalent will be very exciting indeed. Seems like the long events are still decided more by the athlete and less by the technology, and I like that very much. I guess the open water swims are safe!

Tank said...

I've followed your coverage of the swimsuit controversy with great interest, and am finding some interesting parallels with the motorsports world.

Formula-1, World Superbike (WSBK), and now MotoGP have all moved to a spec tire. The reasons differed for each organization, but all shared the goals of helping control costs and increasing parity amongst teams.

I'm curious if it would make sense to consider a similar program for world championship swimmers. Swimwear companies could bid for contracts for specific championships, or for specific bodies/tiers of swimming competition for some limited term, and would provide identical suits for all competitors at the event.

If this was done, the competition would be re-focused on the capabilities of the swimmer, and not on the suit. Swimmers could remain free to sign endorsement contracts for the company of their choice, but would be forced (by rule) to wear the sanctioned suit for the event.

By opening up individual competitions for licensing, manufacturers would have the opportunity to gain exposure to the viewing public and would be supporting the growth of the sport instead of the success of individual swimmers.

For lower-tiers of racing where providing a spec-suit for all competitors might not be attractive to manufacturers, perhaps FINA could create a generic specification and manufacturers could produce to spec. This would ensure equipment parity amongst the lower ranks while allowing for freedom of choice in suits.

Just some thoughts that have come to mind as I've been reading the excellent posts.

Anonymous said...

"Effectively, the egg has been scrambled, and putting it back into the shell now is, well, impossible."

I don't quite see it this way. The swim suits are obviously technology influencing the speeds of competition and records.
Ban them or not a number of solutions are available. Such as:
Ban suits for amateurs and Collegiate contests.
Leave the suits but:
Clearly set two new records: 1 for pre suit, 2 one for after the advent and use of the suits in competition and the Olympics.
This right or wrong was done by the UCI regarding the types of bicycles used to set the hour world record.
I'm not against the rise of technology, BUT its laughable to compare the records in swimming after the new suits/technology to the efforts of swimmers in the past. If someone wants to challenge the old records he can swim without a suit. I think this solution protects the integrity of the sport and its records.
If the suits are banned, then those records should be removed in any case and categorized as "Suit-records" and not part of the current listed records; but as part of a new era of the sport with records of its own. I don't think is so unreasonable or hard for the official organisation to do.
If the suits are not banned it should be noted as a new era in swimming.
Swimming is not my biggest interest, and I also find it rideiculous that the number of medals won in the Olympics are touted for swimmers in that they have so many similar events at different distances. To do the same with cycling or other sports one would have to have six or more time trials at different distances for the riders to compete at. Its great PR but it doesn't actually make for great sport in my opinion as one can't compare the disciplines when the game is stacked in swimmings favor by the number of events.
Vaughn T

Oliver said...

Emotional arguments such as 'juniors won't all have access to suits' etc etc are unnecessary but perhaps they are used because the 'go with technology' side has it wrong, if not disengenous in their argument.

No-one denies that sport should follow technological advances, but the equation of it with motor sport (relying on many parameters of mechanical advantages) etc is irrelevant.

If technological advances provide assistance over and above what can be achieved naturally by humans (not machines)...i.e. bouyancy for example...then it is a performance enhancer...and as such it is cheating in the same sense as any other performance enhancer and should be banned.

This argument has absolutely nothing to do with whether everybody has access or whether a F1 car has a slick Bridgestone tyre or a turbo charger.

Said with absolutely no emotion...I have no connection with swimming and have long lost respect for it, so couldn't care.


Tank said...

Oliver, I think the operative question becomes: What do we do now that the "performance enhancing" suits have been allowed in competition?

I can appreciate drawing a line between what is or is not "performance enhancing" and thus legal, although it seems that this can often become a tricky distinction. Unfortunately, this was not done, and suits that would have been (and now probably will be) illegal were used to set world records.

Vaughn suggests either marking the records as invalid, or giving them an asterisk to denote they were set with illegal suits, either of which might work in the short term, but only until manufacturers come up with a new design/material that manages to enhance performance while not crossing the letter of law regarding legality.

Personally, I don't think it's a question of if that would happen, but instead a question of when.

I fully admit that drawing parallels between motorsport and swimming is dubious, but did think that trying to apply the spec tire rule to another sport was an interesting thought exercise.

Anonymous said...

It is certainly an arm race for junior swimmers and the financial cost is certainly a concern. However, it seems to be a little too late to turn back the clock now. The cut for Junior Nationals has been influenced by the suit, it seems to be unfair for the younger ones who are 15 and under now. It will be much harder to make the cut without technical suits next year.

Jonas said...

Worth noting is that the swimmer in the picture actually set a Danish record, he is a Danish swimmer, in the race where the suit let up.

There has been some debate about the suits also in Danish media, and several of the Danish swimmers have been welcoming. First and foremost, the suits are apparently a pain to put on, so not having that hassle is welcome in itself.

Second, the Danish swimmers are mostly light with quite lean musculature, this has previously evened the competition since the bulky (stronger) swimmers would lie lower in the water and have greater drag. With the LZR the added buoyancy of the neoprene panels meant that the bulky swimmers improved dramatically more than the lean swimmers. Banning the suits outright would revert to a situation where bulking up has drawbacks that mean you would have to balance your training better.

I haven't read the previous comment thread yet, but as with most athletic sports I feel it would be nicer for the sport if the suits were completely banned, just like I don't feel those silly Nike running suits have anything to do in track and field.