US College Coaches Extend Suit Ban
Craig Lord
The CSCAA's move shows a clear determination to separate the latest generation of hi-tech bodysuits from bygone garments. Is there a political white knight now ready to sift the silt of waters muddied by transforming technology?

Momentum is growing to have hi-tech suits banned. In a release today, Dr Phil Whitten, executive director of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America (CSCAA), announces that college swim coaches in the US have voted to extend the ban on fast garments.

The statement reads:

"Bucking the trend by most of swimming's governing bodies to accept the new high-tech swim suits, the board of directors of voted to oppose the NCAA's recent decision not to extend the moratorium it had imposed on the use of these suits in collegiate competition.

"It is the position of the board of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America that the moratorium that was in place for the NCAA Championships for 2008 should be sustained.

"The moratorium prohibited the use of any suit not commercially available prior to January 1, 2008, primarily because the suits were not readily available to all schools and their athletes.

"It is the opinion of the CSCAA Board of Directors that those conditions have not changed significantly and that the moratorium should be sustained at least through the 2008-9 NCAA competitive collegiate season.

"In addition to the factor of availability, ending this moratorium after operational budgets for the 2008-09 season have already been implemented, may have a similar effect on availability for qualifying and competing at the 2009 NCAA Championships. Given that there has been a major increase in the cost of the new suits when compared with the previous generation of suits, many schools will not be able to purchase them this season thereby limiting availability.  One additional year of the moratorium will allow schools to build the new cost into their budgets for 2009-10.

"The CSCAA also expressed concern that the suits may, in fact, aid in flotation and enhance performance -- both explicitly prohibited by FINA and NCAA rules. Independent scientific testing, currently under way, should resolve that issue within the next few months.

"To date, other than the CSCAA, the only other major swimming body in the USA to take the position that the suits should not be allowed is the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA). Last weekend, USA Swimming banned the suits from age group competition only."

Comment: The CSCAA's move shows a clear determination to separate the latest generation of hi-tech bodysuits from bygone garments. It is the latest development to highlight the widespread discomfort felt in world swimming over the use of  suits such as the Speed LZR Racer. The argument is one of both cost and the degree to which performance is being enhanced. 

Since the LZR was launched in February, swimmers have taken an axe to the world-record book, while the many who follow in the wake of the new pace-setters have seen personal best times tumble by an average of around 2 per cent. 

Speedo's rivals were largely left floundering in the race to catch up on technology and the impression was left that the timing of the LZR release had been designed - and not just by the suitmaker but by federations in the know - to prevent the possibility of genuine competition. The argument is double-edged. On the one side, Speedo invested far more money in researching and developing a product that has taken the sport by storm; on the other, at least one rival maker had a suit with similar properties, in terms of materials being used, a year before the LZR launch, but had its development rejected by FINA at a time when some representatives of the international federation knew what was about to emerge from the Speedo stable. 

As momentum gathers in specific pockets of the swimming community to turn the clock back on technology that is aiding performance in a truly significant way, it may know be time for one or the other of the FINA Presidential candidates to be a white knight in the debate. Who is braver - current crown-head Mustapha Larfaoui or pretender to the throne Julio Maglione? So far, FINA has taken the line that it is not the suit that counts but the swimmer in it. That argument misses the point - and most who spout it know very well that that is the case. Hard to tell a main sponsor to put its toy back in the box, particularly if you have encouraged it to develop the toy in the first place. 

Nonetheless, as US coaches from the worlds of college and youth swimming call for a return to "standard" suit equipment and the likes of Nike, with all the potential investment that the sports wear giant could make in the pool, turning its back on the swimming market, the time is ripe for the international federation to sense the mood in its pond. Time to rethink. Do we really want to see fast-suited 12 to 14-year-old from the developing world complete 50m freestyle in the time it takes the best in the world to cover 100m - as we did this summer past? At $500 or so a pop? Helping to develop world swimming? A gimmick? A sales pitch? Exploitation? 

Federation heads have continued to suggest that Speedo should be thankful to the world media for advertising the "hype" of its suit. But it is not the media that has advertised the hype. The media has reflected what has happened in the water: a wholesale re-writing of the history of swimming speed, one that cannot be explained purely by coaching, training techniques, better environments and so forth. Rather, the hype has come from federation heads who have much to gain from contracts with the suit supplier. It is they, those federation mouth-pieces, who have turned a blind eye to the reality unfolding in the water and hidden behind the fact that swimmers and coaches have been so happy to boast personal bests of 2 per cent in girth that many have rejected the notion that something beyond their own hard work and talent might be at play.

In the debate about the future of suits in the sport, those who have questioned the latest fast-suit technology have often been labelled as Ludites. That view is unworthy. There is genuine concern out there. It is time for those who govern the sport to take heed and respond to what amounts to FINA's loss of control of a swimming world that is now divided by suit technology. Youth swimmers from the US, and the age-group community of Australia (where coaches agreed among themselves to have their swimmers race at nationals in "old" tech out of "fairness"), and now US College swimmers, will be racing in garments that differ from those being worn in other parts of the world. Variety has long brought colour to the pool but the current schism in the water differs in one key regard: one suit makes you swim faster than the other.

The amazing results of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games was viewed - with good reason, given Speedo's obvious statistical advantage in terms of medal market share and market share full stop - as having levelled an uneven playing field. Latest development tell us that comparison of times in the future will require reports to note that one junior or college swimmer was or was not in "this or that suit" in order to tell the reader something about the value of the effort and the time on the clock. To complicate a sport in that way is to damage its standing in the competition for market share of attention and, ultimately, money. Simplicity is the key to great sport.

Is there a political white knight ready to sift the silt of waters muddied by technology that has transformed the nature of swimming?