Alexa
  • Directory of Taiwan

The end of swimming as we knew it

The end of swimming as we knew it

Just one last time, in a trip down memory lane, let's hand out simple nylon trunks to Michael Phelps and the others to see how they fare without their usual space-age go-fast swimwear. It could be tried at the World Championships in Rome this July, to demonstrate how money and technology are irrevocably changing the sport.
Of course, the likelihood that swimming's custodians will turn back the clock is nil. They are in far too tight with the manufacturers of those expensive bodysuits to halt the march of science now.
This week, swimming's governors expect to make doubly sure that the old days never return by approving new rules that will regulate but not ditch the suits.
They are more than a bit late: Phelps and his peers utterly rewrote the record books wearing the breakthrough swimwear in 2008, springing rocket science on a venerable discipline that wasn't fully prepared for the leap.
Modern swimming, perhaps even modern sport, has never seen anything like it. More than 100 world records and hundreds more regional and national records were set in the course of the year. Old landmarks, like Janet Evans' 19-year-old record in the 800 free, weren't just given a fresh coat of paint, they were torn down and rebuilt.
So regulating the suits now looks a little like handing out speeding tickets at a Formula One race long after the teams have raced and gone home.
And FINA, the governing body of swimming, doesn't expect its new rules to outlaw the LZR Racer, the revolutionary suit from swimwear giant Speedo worn in most of last year's world record-breaking swims. In which case, why is it bothering?
The answer is that disquiet about the fairness and the performance-enhancing benefits of such suits has grown so loud that FINA had to do something _ even if that essentially boils down to signing off on the new status quo. Going into their meeting in Dubai, talk from FINA officials was not of going back to the old pre-suit days but of getting a better grip on the game-changing technology that they clearly didn't fully grasp in 2008, an Olympic year.
"FINA should have been more vigilant," said the president of the French swimming federation, Francis Luyce, who will be at the Dubai session. "I wouldn't say that people had their head in the sand. That wouldn't be nice. But nevertheless ..."
Added Sam Ramsamy, a FINA vice president: "Loopholes can only be closed after we find them ... That is what we are doing now."
Well, kind of.
Topping the list of proposed rule-changes that FINA made public in a Feb. 20 statement is that suits "shall not cover the neck and shall not extend past the shoulders nor past the ankles."
Speedo's suits pass there. The manufacturer also appears confident that it will jump through FINA's other proposed hoops, including buoyancy and thickness limits and requirements that suits hug but do not transform the shape of swimmers' bodies and do not trap air like lifebuoys.
What could make a real difference is if FINA significantly restricts the use of water-repellent materials like those in Speedo's LZR (pronounced like "laser"), in a second round of additional rules it expects to begin applying next year. But a ban on such materials would displease Speedo, and it remains to be seen whether FINA wants a fight with such a major swimming sponsor. Signs are that it does not.
What is clear is that swimming is now an equipment-based sport, taking the same route as events like Formula One and skiing where having the right gear is important for victory. There's talk of having computer chips or computer-readable barcodes embedded on swimsuits so race inspectors can quickly gauge whether swimmers are wearing a FINA-approved model _ reminiscent of marshals at ski and car races checking whether boots and gearboxes are up to spec.
And there's the prickly question of what to do with the record books. Speedo-clad Rebecca Adlington demolished Evans' world record, the oldest in the books, by 2.11 seconds at the Olympic Games in Beijing. But is the Brit a better swimmer than the American was? Who can tell anymore?
Speedo's PR people note that LZR-suited racers won 47 of 50 golds in Beijing and set 23 of the 25 world records there. Putting an asterisk next to such performances would be unfair on the athletes, not least because it's not just the suit that makes an Olympian. But the leap in speed was such that it is now becoming difficult to connect swimming's present to its past.
With better regulation, perhaps go-fast suits can become as much an accepted part of swimming as goggles are. And swimming certainly has a right to bask in the buzz that its stars, led by Phelps, generated with their world-beating year in 2008, in gear that was perfectly legal at time. Some even wore two or three suits at one go for good measure _ a practice FINA is now expected to ban.
But to be absolutely sure that high-tech is the way ahead and that there'll be no regrets, why not strip down to plain old trunks or a one-piece for one final race?
____
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org


Updated : 2021-06-24 12:04 GMT+08:00