The Amish Might Be Running FINA

If you have had any interest in swimming since the beginning of 2008, then you have most certainly heard about the latest high-tech, full body  swim suits. Just for clarification though, technology in swimsuits goes back much further. I guess I could take this back to when people swam in wool, or when lycra was invented, but I’ll keep it to the modern day swimmer. Full body suits showed up as far back as 1992, in the Barcelona Olympics. Speedo had developed a very smooth fabric that they believed was smoother than skin, and men showed up on the blocks in what looked to be a womens swim suit. Not long after they started developing suits that covered the entire leg and some that covered both arms and legs. All these suits showed various levels of improving your performance, but the improvement was marginal. Fast forward to 2008 and Speedo unveils a suit in which they got NASA to help develop. This version of the suit has polyurethane panels in strategic places along with a level of compression (read: your body is now as tight as a torpedo) not seen before. Well, look out because they got it right this time. Thanks to the Speedo LZR, 108 world records were broken in 2008 and the genie was officially out of the bottle.

Some weren’t really sure what to think about the suit. It met all of the FINA specifications for an eligible suits, but this time, there was no doubt it made you a faster swimmer. The biggest complaint I heard was that is was too expensive.

 Other’s knew exactly what to think about the new suit… a sport was being reborn. Swim companies all jumped in. You had the big guns making super suits like TYR and Arena, but you also had smaller companies and even upstarts jumping in like Blueseventy, Jaked and others. Now for you hippies or those of you reading this from a communist country or something, this is exactly how free markets are supposed to work. Opportunity meets competition. In early 2008, there was 1 super suit. Now there are 202. Guess what happens to the prices?

So now let me fast forward to this month (July 2009). The World Championships are being held in Rome and FINA is holding meetings.  The purists of the sport are up in arms over this new technology as the records are dropping too fast and people are talking about the suit and not the swimmer. FINA decides to changes the rules regarding swim suits. They pass a vote requiring suits to be made of texitles only and the suit may not go below the knee or above the naval for men, and not past the shoulders for women. Wow…..and just like that the swimming world travels back in time to pre 1991 era swim suits.

As you may have noticed in my tone, I have a few issues with all of this. So in no particular order, here goes.

For the first time since I can remember, swimming has been making news and getting attention from the general population. Ususally swimming is the hottest thing going for about two weeks at the summer Olympics. Then it disappears completely. Some argue that the attention is on the suits and not the swimmers. I say, ‘Who Cares??’. Press is press, and in this case the attention is getting TV deals, a broader sponsorship base, and is enabling more and more athletes to chase the dream for a living. I’ve yet to see any negative implications from the additional coverage.

I feel like FINA needs to let the sport evolve a little. The dilema FINA is in is not new. Tennis has high tech rackets, golf has super clubs and balls, Cycling has gobs of new equipment every year, skiing, bobsled, surfing, rowing and the list goes on and on. A new innovation like this causes people to think the sport is changing too much, and they’re right, there have been a lot of records broken because of the suit. In fact 2008 had the 2nd highest number of broken records. Wait, what? The second most? That’s right. Do you know what year boasts the most records broken? The year that they allowed goggles to be worn in competition. You read that right. Goggles had a greater impact on this sport than the super suit, and did it ruin the sport? Not one bit.

By killing the new suits, FINA will put companies put out of business  http://www.cnbc.com/id/32129430. As the cnbc aritcles talks about, there are small companies that have sunk a ton of money into creating a high tech suit. If you roll back the clock to the old lycra, most swimmers will go back to the giants of the industry like Speedo, Nike, and TYR. While risk is just part of starting a business, by killing off these smaller companies you are killing off a great money stream into the sport. How many swimmers were sponsored by Blueseventy before the super suit? You get the idea. Kill the money stream and swimmers head back to waiting tables in order to chase the dream.

What’s wrong with a little excitement? The Tour de France has a number of segments every year on tv showing the world the latest and greatest in bike technology. And since all the athletes have high tech bikes, there is no question that the best rider still wins the race. Any swimmers remember the Berkoff Blastoff? That was absolutely the coolest thing I saw in a pool growing up. FINA got worried though because it changed how people raced the backstroke, so they banned it. Total buzzkill.

How are they going to get the genie back in the bottle? Mark Schubert (who I am a big fan of by the way) suggested putting an asterisk by all the records set with the suit on. An asterisk? Like the one they want to put on Barry Bonds  homerun record for cheating? The suit isn’t cheating, its perfectly legal. We’re going to go a very long time before world records are set again if this holds up, and this doesn’t address all the regional, district, and team records. You also have a number of time standards and qualifying times that are calculated by the previous years results. How’s that gonna work when no one can qualify for the big meet? Maybe they should have two sets of asterisks. One for the suit and one for GOGGLES. Maybe we can get Mark Spitz his records back. What a mess.

I have no idea how this is going to turn out. FINA should have had tighter rules to prevent this type of thing, but they didn’t and it’s here. I don’t have a perfect solution, but wanting to go back and relive the ’80’s again is not my idea of a solution. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Note: Good interview here (http://www.cnbc.com/id/32190778) with Speedo. Brommers is right on the money.

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