Tuesday the 28th of July was not a good day for Speedo. Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time (in terms of medals), and Speedo’s big name sponsored athlete, beaten into second in an event he has for a long time dominated. Beaten by a man who only a year ago was 5th in the Olympic Games in the same event. A man who, one year on, has improved his time from that Olympic final by a staggering four seconds, wearing Arena’s X-glide swimsuit. A man who has himself admitted that the suit makes “him really fast; honestly, about two seconds in the race. I think the suits are destroying a little bit the sport. It’s just, put on a suit, and you’re really, really fast”. (Just for those who are interested – Biedermann’s 400m time from Beijing was 3:48. The other day, he swam 3:40 – perhaps “two seconds” is a little bit of an underestimate..)
And this is not criticism of Biedermann. He’s emerged from the middle of the pack (he was young in Beijing), and is now a double record holder, double world champion and has taken two of the great records in the sport.
In case you missed it, he won the 200m freestyle final in a new world record of 1:42.00. That’s a full 0.96 seconds faster than the old record, which belonged to Michael Phelps. The same Michael Phelps who he beat yesterday, by about 1.5 seconds, and who was wearing the suit from 2008 – Speedo’s LZR Racer. So a bad day for Phelps, and a bad day for Speedo.
Queen continues to get air-time in Rome
The Biedermann world record brought to 11 the number of events whose world records have been broken – I’ve just about lost count of how many times the records have gone, because some events have seen the record improved twice, often in successive races. I think it’s 15…or was it 16? Who knows, I guess I’ll find out later when I watch this evening’s action. All I know is that Queen has continued to get maximum air-time in Rome!
And, perhaps more worryingly, it seems that it is not only world records that are meaningless. Yesterday, we looked at the world records, and the fact that only one or two are older than one year. Call me a purist, but I like the idea that a world record is a challenging boundary! However, I can accept that it’s not necessarily a bad thing for records to fall on average every few hundred days, and almost certainly at every major championship.
The problem for swimming, and this answers a question covered below, is that the way the situation has been managed has actually compromised the integrity of the competition. That is, we do not know if were are seeing seeing swimmers compete on a level playing field (or pool as it were). It’s a tough thing to say, but World Champions from Rome will always have an asterisk next to their performances.
Did we see the best swimmer win the 200m freestyle race yesterday? Did the best swimmer win the women’s 400m freestyle title on day 1? Has the best swimmer won anything this week? You can see the problem with the doubt created by the suits – great swimmers, deserving of titles, are either unfairly doubted, or flat out denied a title because their suit is two seconds slow. It’s a lose-lose all around. As for the viewer, we’ll never know because there is apparently such a large discrepancy between rival swimsuits that the outcome of the race may be significantly influenced by a sponsorship agreement that prevents an athlete from wearing a certain brand.
Michael Phelps may never have won the title – perhaps Biedermann was the better swimmer. Phelps did swim slower than he did in Beijing – by .22 seconds. I certainly do not wish to be a Phelps-apologist and say he “was robbed”. Similarly, I would not say that Kirsty Coventry, Stephanie Rice, or Aaron Piersol are “victims” of the swimsuit debacle. However, their sudden (because 11 months is sudden) fall from the top step to sometimes not even making finals is symptomatic of a shakeup caused by something other than training and talent.
So Phelps did not improve between Beijing and Rome. Biedermann did (by 4 seconds). One would not ordinarily expect the level to improve by that amount in so short a time. Yet it has happened, and maybe Biedermann deserves his success. Fundamental to the debate is that we should not have to wonder – the best athlete should win. And that brings us to the debate stimulated by yesterday’s post…
Why bother? Perhaps we should accept technology?
In response to yesterday's post, we had two really good questions, from Sigmund1 and tr3v. Basically, they made the point that perhaps we shouldn’t even care about banning the suits. Perhaps we should embrace technology and accept it as part of the sport, with the knowledge that in a few years, developments will plateau and we’ll have equal competition.
I think there is some merit to that position. I will say, however, that if you trace the current situation back, then you start to appreciate why the technology poses more of a problem for swimming than for a sport like cycling, or even javelin (two examples often given for how governing bodies have “rolled back” the records).
The marketing/sponsorship problem
First of all, the current situation has its origins in early 2008, when records first started to fall. At that stage, it was quite clear something was afoot – the Speedo LZR, with its high-tech design and polyurethane panels was contributing to records that had stood for years. The problem then was that there was only one such suit – Speedo’s. Arena, TYR and others cried foul because they’d been caught off guard. They thought that the suit should be illegal according to FINA’s laws (which were non-existent). Speedo didn’t, and took advantage of a loophole in law to design it.
Swimming coaches cried foul – their incentive was to promote swimming at all levels, and the creation of a suit that cost $800 threatened swimming equality, they said.
And of course, swimmers cried foul – you must remember that for a swimmer (unlike a cyclist), there is one significant sponsorship source – the swimsuit manufacturer. That is, a swimmer is often reliant on a swimsuit manufacturer to make a living. Cyclists have pro teams with contracts, and range of sponsors in what is an equipment heavy sport with plenty of branding options for sponsors (helmet, gloves, nutrition, hydration, accessories, and that is just within the sport). Swimmers often earn little outside this one deal. Suddenly, the prospect that Suit X (be it Arena, adidas, TYR, Nike) was inferior to Speedo was a crisis that could not be solved simply by wearing another suit, since it would cost valuable sponsor goodwill.
And so began the swimsuit wars…swimmers jumped ship, violating sponsor agreements (sometimes with permission) to try to win medals. Beijing came too quickly for rivals to match Speedo, but once it was done, they caught up, and then some. Arena, Jaked, TYR, all designed suits that took Speedo’s LZR concept and moved it to the next level. The problem was that Speedo (the biggest sponsor in swimming, courtesy USA and Australia) was now left behind, and the end result is the situation we now have – many swimmers are “tied” into contracts that prevent them from wearing the suits that are performance enhancing. Or, alternatively, they cannot get access to them. Either way, the problem is not technology, it is the unequal distribution and implementation of technology.
The challenge of ensuring equal competition – not as simple as it seems
Two final points to make in this regard – because of its efficiency characteristics (swimming is really inefficient), small changes seem to have a big effect on performance. So technology is always going to do major things to swimming times – you see this with biomechanical analysis, the advent of underwater analysis and so forth. I have some data that shows how swimming records have always been more ‘fragile’ than running, but that is for another time (when I have more time!)
However, the implication of this is that the impact made by technology is potentially larger in swimming than it would be for say running shoes in athletics, even tennis racquets in tennis. This means that ensuring equality of competition through technology is much more difficult for swimming. The difference between Nike and Adidas running spikes is minuscule. Trek and Specialized may like to believe they make the best bikes, but the performance differences are tiny, if not non-existent (at that level, of course – my Trek is very inferior!). But for swimming, the differences in technology may be large enough that they outstrip the natural difference between swimmers. Then we have Formula 1, not swimming…
History – a purist view, but a tainted record
Secondly, swimming relies heavily on history and world records for its interest. It is a timed sport (different to cycling in this regard) and so generations are often compared by longevity or records, quality of performances. The current swimsuit situation negates that comparison entirely. I am (again) a purist, but I look at greats of swimming, the likes of Alexander Popov, who was the world record holder in the 100m freestyle only 18 months ago. He’s now well outside the top 10 times ever swum, obliterated from the books, and swimmers with less talent are now well clear of him. There is of course precedent for this – javelin record books were wiped clean when the new javelin was introduced. However, in this analogy, at least everyone got the same javelin…! And it was easy to document where the change had come – a clear, distinct moment separated old from new. For swimming, access to technology is compromised and the line between “before” and “after” less clear.
So the issue is not new technology, but the control over that technology, and equal access. And, at some point, control over its limits. It’s a debatable issue for the future.
For the present though, one might need to enjoy the World Championships but not take results too seriously, because if FINA eventually get around to banning these suits, the pecking order may be tipped on its head. And for the future, FINA should take very seriously the threats and reports, including the threat that Michael Phelps (the sport’s biggest drawcard, like it or not) may not swim in international competitions until the high-tech suits are banned.
You may think that is a spoiled gesture, sour grapes (please let us know!), but what it seems to suggest is that the swimmers themselves are disgruntled and unhappy.
This was a much more marketing heavy post, more on the ‘philosophical’ side, and not the analysis of the world records, which I hope to return to by tomorrow. If time permits…