What’s Up With The Suits?


Published


OK, here we go. There is good news, OK news, some bad news as well.

First, I was privileged to be part of the FINA Swimsuit manufacturers meeting and a FINA organizational meeting that preceeded it, near the end of February in Lausanne. I was one of three coaching representative, along with Alan Thompson, National Team Director for Australia and FINA Coaches Commission Secretary, and Osvaldo Arsenio of Argentina, Coaches Commission Chair. The athletes were represented by Janet Evans, Athletes Commission Chair, and Alex Popov, who used to swim some sprint freestyle before the new suits came along.

I can report to you with absolute certainty that the coaches and athletes were on the exact same page with regard to all issues relating to the suits, at that meeting and since. It is fair to characterize that the athletes and coaches have the most conservative position in the room with regard to the suits. Good news, that FINA invited us to be in the room, good news that they listen to coaches and athletes very carefully, good news that they adopt many of the things that coaches and athletes recommend, bad news that “you don’t always get EVERYTHING you want” (with apologies to Mr. Jagger.)

Here is the scenario as it exists today:

FINA wants to moderate the rules as they exist, in regard to the suits.

FINA will moderate the rules in multiple phases.

First phase will begin immediately post March and continue through the World Championships, until end of December 08.

Second phase will be KNOWN from late summer or earlier, and will begin implementation on Jan. 1, 2010.

Third phase will be post Jan. 1, 2010 with an evaluation period of the effect of rule changes to date and contemplation of what other changes would be good to make.

The Major Traditional Swimsuit partners of the world of swimming are happy to adjust their manufacturing to meet the FINA requirements with the caveat that an 18-24 month development cycle for new products will be heavily stressed with our initial phases. This is a hardship for them, financially and operationally. Also no doubt, some newer players in the market that I categorize as “in it for the fast buck,” will be done in by the new rules and will not be happy. And because they are in it for the quick buck and not for development of the sport longterm, they may well take their unhappiness to a court of law to try to find their “quick buck.” Shame on them if they do.

FINA has watched this intrusion of technology into the sport over a period of eight years. FINA recognizes it will not be able to be fixed in a matter of one or even two years….it will take a bit of adjustment and time to “get it right.”

By get it right, FINA does not mean a technology free sport….FINA wants to allow manufacturers “some latitude” to create differentiated products to sell themselves to the marketplace. At the same time, FINA recognizes that using the body of the athletes for technological advance, in effect “enhancing” the athlete is undersirable for most, as opposed to the Pre-2000 concept of the swimsuit “maximizing” the ability of the athlete.

FINA “gets it.” But “getting it” and doing things that are legally defensible in court, are not always the same thing. Many of us “know things” that the suits are doing to enhance the athlete’s performance. But there is a far cry from what we know to what we can PROVE scientifically.

And if you’re going to court, you’d better be able to PROVE your points, with scientific measurement.

So here is where the “purists” will be unhappy. We cannot fix all that we “know” that the suits do to enhance the performance, because scientific tests do not exist to measure all that we know. (I’ll return to that later.)

By the way, I consider myself, at heart, a “purist” and proud to be so. But I am an utter pragmatist when it comes to courts, and lawsuits.

Its not enough to “know,” we have to be in a position to “prove.”

So, with those preliminaries out of the way, what’s going to happen?

PHASE ONE

The BEST news…FINA has employed one of the great laboratories in the world to do independent testing on all swimsuits. Each suit to be approved by FINA will now be tested by this lab prior to the use of the suit in a competitive period. All suits will be tagged with either a “chip” or a barcode, so we know in fact that each used in competition is an approved suit. (FINA will establish a second level of “Ready Room” to do this.

We will have real testing against set standards by an independent tester. Hoorah!

Almost as good. FINA has banned all wearing of more than one suit. Hoorah!

In Phase One – suits will be a maximum of 1 MM thick. This will eliminate a few of the existing suits.

In Phase One – suits will produce 1 newton (100 grams) of flotation force, or less. This will raise the typical 180 pound swimmer less than 1MM in the water. (materials, amount of suit; etc. become irrelevant…the measurement is on flotation…)

In Phase One – any design features that trap air will be illegal.

In Phase One – any design feature that provides Bio-feedback or any related impact on the body is deemed illegal.

In Phase one – suits will be designed from shoulders to ankles, no arms.

Phase one will affect the Rome World Championships this summer.

All suits (previously approved or not) must be re-submitted for testing according to these standards. A few versions of a few suits will immediately disappear.

The situation will be “a bit better.”

PHASE TWO

– will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2010. Both Coaches and Athletes Commission sent near identical requests to the FINA Executive for even stronger regulation than was adopted here. We didn’t get all we wanted. But we got some. Big Thanks to Janet Evans for her passion and voice on this. After conversations with Cornel Marculescu today, it appears that in addition to the above from Phase one, the phase two restrictions will include:

a reduction in thickness to .8 from 1.0 MM.

a limits on “non-permeable materials” used in the suit…probably to no more than 50% of the suit. And only limited amounts can be “continuous.”..which means that permeable materials must exist right next to non-permeable materials to remove the air trapping capability of rubbers and plastics.

A possible reduction in the newton floatation forces. (still being studied).

A possible ban on zippers as a fastening system. (still being studied).

PHASE THREE

– No date has been set yet for a third evaluation of the changes made by Phase One and Phase two, but Cornel assures that the intent is to give it a little time to fairly evaluate what we have achieved with rule changes in Phases one and two, and then, with a nod to the manufacturing cycle, decide if and what changes should be made in Phase three rules. (projecting, it is likely this evaluation will take place post world championships in 2010)

What has NOT been addressed so far?

The most critical is the issue of “compression.”

While it is unclear what role if any, compression has on physiological effectiveness of muscle cells, what is completely clear to any athlete and most coaches, is that compression is very effective in limiting and reducing the amount of “body fatigue and body line failure” in the last ¼of races. A simple study of the 110 world record splits in 2008, shows over 70% with dramatic improvements in the 4th quarter of the race in contrast with previous (non-tech suits) world records. Simply put, the suits are holding the body line together and reducing resistance when the normal body fatigues, “sags” and loses its ability to hold the correct low resistance position in the latter stages of the race.

Now here, we have the classic example. We know this is true, but we cannot prove it in any way that is going to stand up in court. My personal quest for 2009 and 2010 will be to find a scientist with a reliable test for how to measure compression values in a swimsuit, so we can take it to the independent lab for analysis and a new rule to be introduced in Phase three. But for the time being, it is a bit of “enhancement” that we cannot prove well enough to take to court when FINA is sued. So we do not create a rule that we cannot enforce.

Botttom Line:

Let me be clear about this. I am a purist in the most absolute sense. I want to see us swim in jammers for men and hip to shoulder suits for women, with no compression to speak of in either.

In phase one, we won’t get there. In phase two, we won’t get there.

In both phases, we will see dramatically improved conditions for “purist” competition, where the enhancements of the suits count for less and less and the athleticism, training and learning of the athlete counts for more and more.

FINA is moving in the correct direction, and in the correct way. It is a pointless and indefensible position to set in place dramatic rules rolling the sport back to 1999 when it would alienate all the traditional partners who contribute over $100 Million a year to coaches, athletes, federations and FINA and support our sport, AND wind up resulting in lawsuits from manufacturers whom we have mis-treated by pulling the rug out from under their products so quickly as to leave them insolvent.

A staged, systematic roll-back to the level we decide is correct is the proper way to treat people, treat companies and treat each other. And that is exactly what FINA has put in place.

I will continue to put forth ideas that will be able to be scientifically tested by the independent lab as a way to combat “enhancement” properties of swimsuits. I am certain that the lab and FINA will give each proposal due and proper consideration.

It is critical that athletes as well as coaches work collaboratively with FINA to give their ideas…but also to keep in mind that it is not what you “know,” its what you scientifically measure, that will keep you out of trouble in a court of law. FINA has done a fine job of walking that line.

My personal thanks to FINA volunteer leadership and the professional leadership of Cornel Marculescu, for moving forward on this issue within the first 12 month period when this issue came to the fore.

That willingness to quickly address the issue and consult strongly with its partners, the coaches and the athletes, and implement a solution, speaks very well of the FINA organization.

The blame for eight years of heading in the wrong direction can be placed by those who enjoy the blame game. When the ultimate overflow of bad reviews came about in 2008, FINA jumped to solve the problem.

That’s real progress. If you are old enough to remember other era’s and other problems, this is a great leap forward. At least one of my very good friends will label me a “FINA Apologist” for these comments. I reject that idea. No one in the world has been more critical of FINA at various times in the last two decades than myself. But when an organization does its best to
move in the right direction and solve real problems, they have earned support, not censure. Its important to say “thank you” when some body with which you sometimes disagree, listens, learns and changes. That’s where I am with the suit issue. Thank you FINA. Thank you Cornel. Nicely done.

Your comments are welcome at JLeonard@swimmingcoach.org

All the Best, John Leonard

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