In swimming, which gained unprecedented prominence through Michael Phelps’s Olympian achievements last summer, no one questions the sport has advanced beyond the tiny briefs and Lycra suits of years past. But how far beyond?
The debate over when acceptable technological advancement crosses the line into inappropriate performance -enhancement grew fierce Monday when FINA, the world governing body of swimming, ruled that competitors at this summer’s world championships will face virtually no restrictions on controversial body-hugging swimsuits that many say are responsible for an explosion of world records over the last 18 months and constitute the equivalent of high-tech doping.
Although all sports have wrestled with the ethical issues raised by technology, swimming experts say the new swimsuits have produced drops in times that are so dramatic that they exceed the boundaries of fair competition.
“The nuclear arms race has gotten out of control for sure,” U.S. Olympian Eric Shanteau said after testing four of the newest suits in four races at a grand prix in Charlotte last month. “My problem with it is ….. as swimmers, our job is to show up in the best suit out there. We’re not going to be in a Camaro if the competition is going to be in a Ferrari. It’s FINA’s job to restrict the suits.”
FINA gave swimmers the go-ahead to use more than 300 suits from more than two dozen manufacturers, essentially backing away from its pledge last month to rein in the increasingly technical suits before the July 25-Aug. 2 world championships in Rome, the sport’s biggest event outside of the Olympic Games. Only 10 suits were banned.
The new suits are said to help swimmers by compressing the muscles, reducing friction in the water, and trapping air and increasing flotation to boost buoyancy.
More than 120 world records have been set since the latest suits were introduced beginning in early 2008. More than 90 percent of the swimming gold medals at the Beijing Olympics last summer went to athletes wearing Speedo’s LZR Racer, the suit credited with kicking off the technological race. Among those wearing the suit was Phelps, who captured a record eight gold medals, and many of his American teammates.
The suits “have completely disrupted the fabric of the sport,” said John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, by phone Monday. “The rise of suits has been more destructive than anything the sport has seen in the last 50 years, including doping.”
Long-length suits have been popular since before the 2000 Summer Olympics, but early versions did not have the impact that the most recent have. It wasn’t until Speedo launched the NASA-designed LZR in early 2008 that dozens of companies joined the competition to produce the fastest synthetic suit.
Some version of the latest suits are increasingly considered necessities among amateurs — high school, collegiate and master’s swimmers — raising significant cost concerns, Leonard and others say. Most of the suits retail for $300-$500 apiece, not an obstacle for Olympic-caliber swimmers who usually get them for free, but a considerable issue for many college and high school competitors. The suits also need to be replaced after about a half-dozen uses.
“This is sport that used to be about technique and training and talent, and now it’s going to be about technology” until the rules are tightened, said Bob Bowman, who coaches Phelps and fellow Olympian Katie Hoff, by phone. “I’m also concerned about the long-term ramifications for the sport that come out of this period of free-for-all. Once records are set, it’s hard to get them back ….. It’s not going to be just six months of chaos, we’re going to be paying for this for a decade.”
Among the suits originally rejected that won approval yesterday include the Jaked 01, which was worn during three recent world record swims by Fred Bousquet of France in the 50-meter freestyle, Felipe Silva of Brazil in the 50-meter breaststroke and Rafael Muñoz Pérez of Spain in the 50-meter butterfly. Jaked, an Italian company, sponsor’s the Italian national team.
All 11 suits of the manfacturer blueseventy — in which five world records have been set — also gained approval after initial rejection, as did more than a dozen versions of Tyr suits.
Though FINA declined to say which 10 suits were not allowed, the list apparently included the arena X-Glide worn by Alain Bernard of France when he claimed the 100 freestyle world record and the Descente model worn by Ryosuke Irie of Japan when he set the world mark in the 200 backstroke. Late Monday morning, FINA announced that it had not ratified those world records and four others.
In its original decision, FINA complained that the suits it rejected were impermeable and caused air-trapping, but the suit companies either adjusted their designs or simply disputed those points. Even so, according to a source close to the international governing body, a four-person commission appointed to review the 136 questioned suits recommended to FINA that all but one of the suits should be rejected.
FINA apparently ignored that advice and yesterday withdrew its earlier complaints, saying it didn’t have sufficient time to determine accurately which suits enhanced performance and which did not.
FINA officials claim they will take more aggressive action at the start of next year, setting more stringent guidelines that could eliminate some currently approved suits. Some say acting next year is way too late.
“They just need to roll back time ….. it’s been this big snowball that’s just kept rolling and it’s gotten out of hand,” Hoff said recently. “We should have a world championships with normal suits and a world championships with the other suits. If enough people get upset about it, it just might happen.”
Tags: Michael Phelps