Swimsuit debate: Differing perspectives  //  Two points of view, as the swimsuit debate continues

30 Jul 2009 Posted by
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 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!

Ross