FINA, which is the international governing body of swimming, diving, water polo, synchronized swimming and open water swimming, decided last Friday to propose banning all the full-body, high tech swimsuits in competition, according to a story in the Washington Post. If approved, the ban would start in 2010 FINA-governed competitions.
Instead, FINA is now proposing that only waist-to-knee suits for men, and shoulder-to-knee suits for women will be allowed.
FINA's decision came about as the revolution in high-tech swim suit technology, which started with the then controversial SpeedoFastskin suit used in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, really exploded at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games by swimmers - especially 8-time gold medal winner Michael Phelps - using the Speedo Fastskin LZR Racer.
Speedo used super-computers by SGI to look at the fluid dynamics of elite swimmers as well as sought help from NASA and others to develop improved swim suit materials and designs that allowed swimmers to markedly reduce their drag. Within a week of it being used in competition, swimmers using the LZR Racer had broken three world records.
In 2008 alone, more than 100 swimming world records fell, many by swimmers using the new Speedo LZR suit. In fact, Speedo urged all American swimmers to use the LZR suit, regardless of their contract obligations, if they "really" wanted to medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics. That "helpful" suggestion spawned a lawsuit.
However, other swim suit companies were not far behind Speedo and they quickly developed new materials that were even better than that used in the Speedo suit. There are now over 136 high-tech suits that claim to offer improved swimming times, many far eclipsing the LZR.
However, once swimmers using the Speedo suits started being left behind, the company sought to rein in the use of high-tech suits; at least for those that apparently add buoyancy (which Speedo claims its swim suits don't).
While some critics view the use of high-tech suits as equivalent to "technological doping", others view them as a natural progression, such as technological improvements in poles used for pole vaulting, the advanced materials used in golf clubs, etc. At some point the technology improvements would likely level off, they argue.
I see merit in both sides of this argument.
My question to you all: should FINA have banned the suits, or just wait and see if the tech advantage leveled off say in the next two years, or taken some other course of action? Is it merely a question of setting measurable and enforceable standards?
I would like to hear from both swimmers and spectators of the sport.
In fact, the high-tech suits created an atmosphere, the Times reported,
"So unreal was the scene that Paul Biedermann, a German who ranked 21st in the world in the 400 freestyle in 2008, surpassed the seven-year-old world record of Ian Thorpe."
Biederman's time was seven seconds better than his previous best time. He said, in somewhat of an understatement,
“The swimsuit helped me a lot."
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.