Suit gets the boot

Swimming

 Olympic champion Michael Phelps has welcomed FINA’s latest move. APIn an effort to clean up its sport, the international governing body of swimming will require its athletes to show more skin after the FINA officials decided to ban the high-tech swimsuits that have been likened to doping on a hanger.

The ban does not start until 2010, but the polyurethane-based swimsuit era that the swimwear giant Speedo introduced in the lead-up to last year's Beijing Olympics will effectively be ushered out, presumably with a bang, at the swimming World Championships that start in Rome on Sunday.

In the 17 months since the LZR Racer hit the market and spawned a host of imitators, more than 130 world records have fallen, including seven (in eight events) by Michael Phelps during the Beijing Olympics.

Phelps, a 14-time Olympic gold medalist, applauded FINA's proposal that racing suits be made of permeable materials and that there be limits to how much of a swimmer's body could be covered. The motion must be approved by the FINA Bureau when it convenes Tuesday.

"I like it," Phelps said. "I think it's going to be good."

In the Olympic individual events, only four world records remain from the pre-2008, pre-polyurethane era: the men's 400- and 1,500-meter freestyles, and the women's 100 breaststroke and 100 butterfly.

As setting world records became almost commonplace, the swimsuit controversy spread beyond issues of performance into the territory of morality.

The Briton Rebecca Adlington, who won gold medals in the 400 and 800 freestyles in Beijing, is sticking with the LZR Racer.

"I would never in a million years take a drug to help me, so why would I wear a suit just to improve my performance?" she told The Daily Telegraph. "It's just not who I am."
Jaked, an Italian-based manufacturer, is one of nearly two dozen companies that dived into the swimsuit race. Its 01 model has fewer panels and seams and more polyurethane than Speedo's high-tech offering.

There were concerns that swimsuit technology was encroaching on the sport's integrity as far back as 2000 when full-body suits were introduced, replacing men's lycra briefs and women's lycra one pieces.

At that time, the US Swimming Board of Directors convened a conference call. Dave Salo, the University of Southern California swim coach who was on the board then, said the members spent two hours discussing technology's slippery slope.

In a news conference last Friday, Corel Marculescu, the executive director of FINA, said, "We've been looking at this issue for six months only, trying to solve the problems." He added, "There's going to be no more an issue."

Before this week, FINA did not have a bylaw expressly forbidding swimsuits that might aid speed, buoyancy and endurance. Some retired swimming greats were openly questioning the governing body's stewardship of the sport. Franziska Van Almsick, a former world-record holder in the 200 freestyle, recently told the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, "They can't allow the full-body condom where all you see is the swimmer's face."

Salo, who coaches the American Rebecca Soni, the world-record holder in the women's 200 breaststroke, said, "I think when FINA didn't define the rules, it opened this quagmire for all the swimsuit companies because they looked around and said, 'Oh, there are no rules.'"

Advantages

Not all the high-tech suits were created equal. But they enabled swimmers without an ideal physique or impeccable conditioning to be more competitive. Squeezed into the corset-like suit, a muscled and stocky body is as streamlined as a long and lean one; a soft abdomen as effective as six-pack abs.

"The thing that's really hurt more than anything else is the whole suit situation has devalued athleticism," Salo said. "A lot of kids who aren't in very good shape can put on one of these suits and be streamlined like seals."

FINA officials arranged for buoyancy tests on nearly 400 suit models and approved 202 in May for these world championships. Ten suits were rejected, including the B8 polyurethane model created by the California-based Tyr Sport and favoured by the American sprint freestyler and backstroker Matt Grevers. Tyr has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the hopes of having the suit approved before Rome.

Come January, the polyurethane era will have gone the way of square-grooved clubs in men's professional golf. "Basically, when we roll back, racers are going to hurt a lot more than they hurt currently, which is not something I'm looking forward to," Grevers said. He added, "Mentally, I think everyone's prepared to go slower."

Grevers, the silver medalist in the 100 backstroke in Beijing, spoke after warming up in the outdoor competition pool at the Foro Italico Sports Complex. At the end of his practice, he shed his full-body polyurethane suit like a snake does a second skin to reveal old-school nylon briefs he wears underneath for modesty's sake.

The next debate will revolve around the world records broken by athletes wearing the soon-to-be banned suits. Should 2008-9 be remembered as swimming's asterisk era?
"The rules that were in there at that moment, we accept it," said Uruguay's Julio Maglione, who was elected president of FINA at Friday's congress. "No change."

Mark Schubert, the general manager of the US national team, disagreed. Earlier this month he said the records should be stricken from the books because they were artificially aided. "I just don't think we've been good stewards of the sport to allow what's happened," he said.

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