Speedo Swimsuit debate  //  Approved by FINA and improving world records, except in one case

26 Mar 2008 Posted by
Yesterday, towards the end of the post, I mentioned that we’d leave the Speedo Swimsuit issue for a while, and pick it up again in a few weeks when the sport’s governing body, FINA, meets with Speedo and other manufacturers to discuss the issue of new swimsuits. However, I received some interesting new information on the topic, so I thought I’d do a very short post on that, and then leave the footstrike one to tomorrow morning (SA time) instead.

Some more discussion on the Speedo LZR Racer

Grant-Hackett-Speedo-swimsuitFor those who’ve missed the story, in the last 39 days, 14 world records have been set in the pool, and 13 of them have been in the newly designed swimsuit by Speedo. Claims of 5% less drag, water repellent fabric, an “internal core stabilizer” which helps the swimmer maintain form towards the end of the race, and what are called “low-drag” panels where the flow of water is greatest have been made to explain what must be one of the more remarkable periods of record setting in the sport. Are there any swimming enthusiasts who know of similar periods where so many world records have been set in so short a time?

In any event, all these innovations add up to more efficient movement through the water. And this, of course, is the critical aspect in swimming, as has been discussed in the comments section to previous posts on the topic.

Earlier today, I received an article from Jim Ferstle, a journalist in the States who seems to be something of a “Maven” (read “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell for the explanation!) when it comes to these stories. You can read that article here.

It provides a really fascinating summary of the issues, and presents facts in a logical way, so it’s worth a read. What I find most interesting is the testing procedures that were followed. According to the report, over the last three years, testing involved:

  • Wind tunnel testing at NASA to evaluate drag and stability in more than 60 candidate fabrics, including at a “microscopic” level.
  • Over 1000 “flume” testing sessions in Otago, New Zealand, where dummy swimmers and real swimmers are placed in a flow of water to evaluate hydrodynamics
  • Months of testing at the Australian Institute of Sport

What is more interesting, however is that during the development, Speedo apparently met with FINA and adhered to all the regulations for swim-suit design. If that is true, there is little chance of any action being taken now (not that there ever was), but it’s interesting to note that many people within the sport (including FINA, amazingly!) are now raising concerns, when FINA (apparently) approved the development. One should not read too much into things, but this doesn’t suggest equal access for all swimmers, federations and officials, either to information or to the actual swimsuit. For if FINA officials are now questioning the legality of the suit, then what process was followed to approve it to begin with? Clearly, they missed certain aspects which are only now being questioned – given the extent of the testing done, one would have thought that issues like buoyancy (which seems to be the big issue now) would have been resolved?

Is access to equipment going to be a problem?

One of the big fears is that some swimmers will be disadvantaged as a result of not having great equipment. For example, Canada’s swimmers are going to have to do without the suit for a while. Despite being sponsored by Speedo, there are only a handful of the LZR Racers in Canada, and they are being passed around for trial use. They are promised the suit at a later stage, after the Canadian national trials, however. According to the coach of one of Canada’s best swimmers, Brent Hayden, it’s not a massive issue until Beijing, when it really will count, but there is without question concern. His quote, from this article:

The only thing we don’t want to be is to be feeling like we’re being treated any less fairly than any of the countries in the world that have access to this suit,” said Johnson. “But we were told that the suit wasn’t available. The question now is: If it’s not available, how come everybody has it?

In their defence, Speedo Canada have said that they did not wish to have a situation where certain swimmers at the upcoming Canadian trials had the suit, but not others. That’s fine, but those swimmers might well be asking why they are receiving suits months after rivals in Europe and Australia, having to settle instead for a few trial suits?

All this does not do much for the fear that the suit will divide the swimming world into “the haves” and the “have nots”. This is a quote by Kieren Perkins, former 1500m legend and Olympic champion, which you can read the article described above.

Arena launches its new suit – the Powerskin R-Evolution: let the games begin

No sooner than this concern was raised, and another big player on the swimming stage entered the fray. I mentioned earlier that 14 records had been set, 13 of them in the Speedo LZR Racer. Well, the single record NOT set in the Speedo was set yesterday evening by Italy’s Federica Pellegrini. She was wearing Arena’s new swimsuit – the Powerskin R-Evolution. The name says it all, I guess! This is definitely a good thing – at least the competition in the market will achieve the goal of getting the best swimmers into SIMILAR suits. The playing field may yet be level, but only at the top end with the elite swimmers. The worst thing that could have happened is that Speedo was the only company innovating, and then nations with other sponsors would be handicapped from the start. Nike and Adidas are to launch their product soon, so there is hope yet for an “even” Olympic Final.

So it certainly seems we’re heading for a technological battle come Beijing. Every second weekend, for six months of the year, I follow a sport where the technological battles rage and winning and losing is often a function of tyre choice, never mind the other $400 million dollars that goes into technological advancements – it’s called Formula 1. Not to take anything away from the drivers, but with so much of the battle won OFF the track, the sport has a very different character/personality than swimming and running, where it’s one athlete against another. Is swimming headed that way? One thing is for sure, I would hate to be the only guy in the Olympic Final not wearing a Powerskin or an LZR with “internal core stabliser” functions!

Then again, maybe it’s not all positive…

Unless of course, you’re Jess Schipper. The Australian butterfly swimmer, is actually blaming her Speedo LZR Racer for her failure to break the world record in the 200m butterfly event. Her reason? The suit apparently filled with water when she dived in, and forced her to slow down so much in the final 50m that she was almost caught by two rivals. Of course, given that she went out 1.34 seconds FASTER than the world record pace, there is a chance that she simply “blew” coming home and physiology explains the slow down. But for a great quote from this article:

Schipper had started like a speedboat to be 1.34 seconds under world record pace at the 100m mark with an opening split of 58.77s. But she finished like a submarine to clock 2mins:06.82secs and finish over a second off her best (2:05.40).

I’m not sure whether the “speed boat” first half is more a concern than the “submarine” second, but it’s an interesting story of how sometimes, the most advanced technology in the world can undermine your efforts – imagine, a swimmer sunk by a “leak”! Or should that be a speedboat?