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HELENE ELLIOTT

Suits making a mockery of swimming championships

Swimmers set 11 world records in the first two days of the world championships, and FINA lacks the firm hand needed to govern technological advances.

July 28, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

Swimmers set 11 world records in the first two days of the world championships, proof that the supposed stewards of the sport have turned the sublime into the ridiculous.

Records that stood for years now change hands within hours, and more will fall in the last six days of competition at Rome's Foro Italico pool.

"This is just ridiculous," five-time Olympian Dara Torres told reporters in Rome.

Each of those records should be accompanied by an asterisk and an apology from FINA, the international governing body for aquatic sports.

By letting the race for the most high-tech swimsuits go virtually ungoverned, FINA deflected attention from the swimmers to their suits, slighting athletes and cheapening the standards set since technology overtook common sense.

These championships are the sundown of an era that has produced about 150 world records over 18 months, since Speedo introduced the sleek LZR Racer and set off a scientific scramble that spawned bodysuits seemingly stolen from bad science-fiction movies.

FINA's general congress, in a decision expected to be rubber-stamped today by its bureau, voted last week to adopt a U.S.-backed proposal and ban the high-tech swimsuits.

Whether for the good of the sport -- the suits are too costly for some swimmers -- or the good of Speedo -- a sponsor of the world championships and supporter of several national swim federations but lagging its rivals in technology -- the ban is coming in 2010.

That means records set this week are likely to stand for a long time.

"All I know is that there has been an absolute avalanche of world records this year and last year, and I can't remember having seen such devastation on the record books for decades," John Naber, a five-time Olympic swimming medalist turned author and motivational speaker, said Monday.

FINA decreed suits will have to be made of "textile" fabrics, a still-undefined term. Men's suits will go from waist to knees, and women's suits will stop at the shoulders and the top of the knees.

So long Arena X-Glide, the polyurethane suit Germany's Paul Biedermann wore Sunday when he cut his time of a month ago by a startling 6 1/2 seconds and broke Ian Thorpe's 7-year-old world record in the 400-meter freestyle.

"I hate saying this because I sound like a bad sport, but that world record would not have gone without that suit," Grant Hackett, the world-record holder in the 800 and 1,500 free, told The Australian newspaper.

"What FINA's top officials have done to the sport, what they have allowed to happen, is an absolute disgrace."

Bye-bye Jaked 01, the air-trapping suit worn by France's Frederick Bousquet in April when he broke the world record in the 50-meter freestyle.

"I want to see champions swimming fast because I marvel at it. But I don't marvel at this," Hackett said of the repeated smashing of world records. "It's a bloody shame. I can't wait to get over this hurdle and get back to real swimming."

Advances in technology aren't inherently evil. But they must be governed by a firm hand, which FINA lacks.

"Johnny Weismuller wore cotton and we got rid of those and moved on to something else," Naber said. "Some pole vaulters were better on bamboo than on spring steel and some better on spring steel than graphite composite. Every time the rules changed somebody benefited and, therefore, somebody else suffered."

Naber recalled that early in 1976, before the Montreal Olympics, Adidas introduced a line called paper suits (as opposed to its new Hydrofoil suits, which are paper-thin). Speedo responded by incorporating Lycra into its suits.

"I intentionally refused to wear either," Naber said. "I wore the nylon suits made by Speedo in the Olympic Games to make a point that it's not who wears the fastest suit, it's who swims the distance in the shortest amount of time.

"At the time my body was covered by 1 1/2 square feet of fabric, and nowadays it's a much bigger issue. Those that wear it do swear by it and say there's a real difference."

It's not too cynical to wonder why USA Swimming, which has financial ties to Speedo, didn't push to ban the high-tech suits until Speedo was eclipsed by Jaked and other companies.

Speedo, which also has sponsorship ties to FINA, was silent on the issue for months, possibly thinking the newer suits -- sometimes likened to flotation devices -- would be banned. Speedo issued a statement last week saying banning bodysuits "is a retrograde step that could be detrimental to the future of swimming," and said its LZR suit helped popularize the sport.

"Certainly you've got people scratching each other's backs," Naber said. "My guess is that the governing body wants to do what's in the best interest of the sport, and that's not necessarily the same thing as what's in the best interest of the swimmers."

What is in their best interest?

"From a former swimmer's point of view, I would love it if all the technology went back to the 1970s," Naber said. "But as a swimming supporter today and understanding that it's not just all about me, I have to say, 'Wait a minute, let's be slow to act and think long-term.' "

That means looking past the brief life span of world records and to a day when the swimmers are the story, not their suits.

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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