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Oct. 8, 2009

Swimmers finally lose their scales

by Larisa Antonisse, Page Editor
Times are changing, and as technology advances, it makes sense that sports would follow suit. But when expensive technology, not hard work, creates new athletic records at the high school, collegiate and professional levels alike, competition is no longer fair.

Such is the case in the increasingly popular sport of swimming. The fastest swimsuits on the market today are 100 percent polyurethane bodysuits, made by swimsuit manufacturers like Jaked and Arena. Polyurethane lends itself to rapid swimming because of the way it floats, traps air and compresses muscles. But beginning Jan. 1, 100 percent polyurethane suits will be banned from professional swimming.

This past July, the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA), professional swimming's international governing body, banned all suits not made of textiles or woven materials. The new regulation also prohibits male suits that extend below the knee or above the waist and female suits that extend below the knee or above the shoulder.

Following FINA's new regulation, both the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations adopted similar bans in late July and early August, respectively. These bans are long overdue regulations that will serve to revive the principles of fairness and equality on which swimming is based.

In the time before the regulations, athletes wearing high-tech swimsuits won so many competitions and broke such a massive number of records that the speed advantages of the suits are clearly recorded. According to Speedo's website, in the 2008 Olympics, swimmers wearing the 50 percent polyurethane Speedo LZR Racer suit won 89 percent of all medals and 94 percent of all gold medals. This was even before the 100 percent polyurethane suits were invented. And increased speed does not come cheap - high-tech swimsuits cost between $300 and $600 and typically last about six races.

The high cost of high-tech suits may not be a problem for professional or even college swimmers, who often get their suits for free from sponsoring corporations. At the high school level, though, the athletes who wear high-tech suits are generally from wealthy families, who can afford the gear. Competitive swim training programs, such as Montgomery County’s popular Rockville Montgomery Swim Club, are already pricey, so low-income student swimmers start with a disadvantage. Allowing the use of high-tech suits is just another unnecessary barrier to low-income students' participation in the sport.

The immense speed advantage gained from high-tech suits has even put pressure on high school swimmers to wear the suits just to keep up with the high-level competition. Last year, All-American swimmer and former Blair captain Andrew McGehee wore a Speedo LZR at the Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Swimming and Diving Championships meet, where he took second in the 50-yard freestyle and sixth in the 100-yard breaststroke. Coach David Swaney said that McGehee wore the suit because he felt that it would help him reach his goals at the meet. Just recently, senior Jeff Lin, captain of the Blair swim and dive team, purchased a jammer version (male suit that extends from the waist to the knee) of the Speedo LZR. Even though the LZR is a 50 percent polyurethane high-tech suit that began the so-called "arms race" in swimsuit technology, it is not yet restricted. Lin said that he bought the suit in order to help him make the time cut for an important upcoming national meet.

With the new regulation in place this season, the hard work and dedication of high-level swimmers like Lin and McGehee will become better emphasized in the pool. Some experts believe that the suits actually help less fit swimmers more than fit ones, because the tight-fitting nature of high-tech suits compresses any excess fat to streamline the body in the water. The suits are also thought to aid less experienced swimmers more than skilled ones because the streamlining effect helps cover up any flaws in the form of a swimmer's stroke.

Many critics of the new technology go so far as to equate the suits with steroids because of the abrupt and unnatural increases in speed that they cause across all levels of swimming. After all, the only difference between steroids and polyurethane suits is that swimsuits don't affect a person's health. Polyurethane suits, like steroids in baseball, have marred swimming's reputation. Many sports fans have lost much of the respect they once had for participants in this demanding sport because they believe that all swimming accomplishments are a result of the suit and not the athlete. In response to FINA's media release about the new regulation, Speedo said, "The recent introduction of 100 percent non-permeable buoyant wetsuits and their impact on performance has cast a shadow over the sport."

Now that the suits are banned, the question arises whether the hundreds of records set using the high-tech suits should stand. Coach Swaney, calling high-tech suits an "inappropriate aid in competition," said that although he is upset that regulations took too long to pass, records should not be invalidated. "The records set with the suits will stand for too long," said Swaney, "but they should stand because they were done legally."

It's a shame that it took FINA so long to regulate these suits. As records piled up over the years, so did questions about the fairness of competition. FINA has always prohibited the use of swimming equipment in competition, but high-tech swimsuits became more like equipment than uniforms.

All those involved in high-level swimming will regret this lapse in control for years to come - the time it will probably take for swimmers to break these records under the new regulations. But we can't erase past records - we can only move forward in the sport that has once again become a competition about strength, precision and commitment.



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