FINA Swimsuit Bans: Changing the Sport
In the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, 25 world records and 65 Olympics records were beaten in swimming alone. FINA, the international governing body of almost all aquatic sports, attributes these records to the new polyurethane suits that came out earlier in the year before the Olympics. In the past suits have been made of lycra and spandex among other materials, but with technology help from NASA and various professors (including Iowa State’s own Rick Sharp), suits have evolved to include the material polyurethane. Polyurethane essentially helps the body float while swimming, keeping swimmers more afloat in races, helping them go faster. These suits, such as the Speedo LZR, were much anticipated and covered more body than ever before, spanning from the shoulder of the body down to the ankles. However, after the outstanding swimming performances at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, FINA and swimmers everywhere began questioning the legitimately and legality of the suits. Had such advanced technology taken away from swimming as a sport, focused on athletic ability, and changed it to a competition of which athlete has the best technology? FINA decided that the technology took away from the true nature of swimming, and banned the new technology in September 2009. I agree with FINA’s stance on the suits and fully support the ban of polyurethane fabric and other materials used to change the sport from its focus on athleticism.
While I agree with many of the numerous blogs on the topic, I find myself employing feelings much stronger than many of the blog writers. Having personally been a swimmer for over 10 years at this point, I have seen almost every type of swim suit. The LZR Racer produced by Speedo was by far the most technologically advanced suit I have ever seen and will most likely ever witness in action in a race. The suit is made of 50% polyurethane and aids the body with its buoyancy. Typically in swim races, a swimmer will race towards the top of the water, and then as the swimmer’s body tires, they will float lower and lower in the water. This suit helps keep the body buoyant thus making it easier to swim faster. This lead to 25 new world records at the Beijing Olympics, but the technology didn’t stop there. Early in the next year, two companies took it a step further and produced 100% polyurethane suits. Then, at the World Championships, 43 world records fell, almost doubling the total of records broken at the Olympics only a year before. This prompted FINA to evaluate the technology in use and decided that “enough was enough” and banned all tech suits. FINA installed new rules that dictate that “racing suits must be made solely of ‘textile’ fabric”. In addition to the suit material rules, they also decided to mandate that women’s suits may not extend past the knee from the shoulder, and men’s suits may not extend past the knee from the waist. This is a change from the previous shoulder to ankle suits used by both men and women. In this video, we get to listen to Iowa State professor Rick Sharp talk about his work with the suits and how they function. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_aesaJZYts.
Throughout the blogosphere, reactions to this issue have largely fit on the same slate. Most bloggers agree with FINA’s actions of banning the technology. The suit’s technology left bloggers, magazines, and newspapers alike reeling. Times Magazine 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.” Biedermann’s race beat his previous personal best by seven seconds. He later said in an interview, “The suit helped me a lot”. Some swimmers and swimming fans are torn. One blogger writes, “As a fluid dynamics fan and a sports fan this development has me torn. It’s a shame that the full force of fluid dynamics technology can’t be realized in the pursuit of sporting performance in swimming”. While every spectator and even swimmer would love to see the heights that can be reached with new technology, it takes away from the sport itself. Legendary swimmers such as Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, people that could fill phone books with their accomplishments, could reach new heights. World records set while wearing normal swimsuits could be smashed, swimming could reach new heights and raise the bar for the sport as a whole. This brings a whole new audience to swimming, says former Olympic swimmer and now Olympic host, Rowdy Gaines. More people want to watch when new amazing feats are being reached every race. However, with this comes issues. New technology and suits suddenly means that swimming becomes an expensive, and therefore exclusionary, sport. Spectators and swimmers alike realize this issue, and I believe this is part of what lead FINA to ban the suits. They did not want the sport to change into a race to see who can drop the most money on the latest technology to be fastest. From the very beginning, swimming has been about working hard, building athleticism, and swimming your fastest in the pool. With technology doing some of the work, swimming loses part of its credibility. These reactions – while slightly varied on their levels of support – all support the main idea of the FINA ban: that swimming should remain about just that – swimming. Years later, at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, swimmers proved themselves to be superior to the suit, setting nine world records.
The polyurethane suits had more drawbacks than just taking away from the sport. For swimmers – especially of Olympic caliber – racing suits mean suits one to two sizes smaller than normal. Extremely tight. Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers explained the suits as something of a task. He said, “Before, you were on the schedule of the suit. You had to set aside like 45 minutes to put it on. And just the strain on your arms putting that suit on, your fingers possibly bleeding. It was bad.” These suits, while helping the swimmers in the pool, were harming them moments before their races, causing bleeding and even shortness of breath due to the unnaturally tight fit of racing suits. The suits have even been compared to steroids, with people saying that they are “wearing the steroid rather than taking it” due to the suits unfair advantages. And while the suits may have increased speed and therefore number of records and interest, swimmers say they prefer the new rules. Michael Phelps, swimming’s golden boy himself, record holder for most medals in the Olympics and most gold medals said about the new rules, “Swimming is actually swimming again, it’s not who’s wearing what suit, who has what material. We’re all under the same guidelines.” Having a swimmer so well-known and influential like Michael Phelps say he’s glad the suits are gone really makes the world see just how much the suits affected the sport.
Once all the aspects of the FINA swimsuit ban have been explored, there really was no suitable reason to save the polyurethane suits. Swimming, a sport that has been around since the very first Olympics, faced a grand change with the very nature of the sport itself. The technology itself was breakthrough – from 50% polyurethane to 100%, being able to keep a person more buoyant no matter their weight is an impressive feat. With work from not only professors and your typical researchers, but NASA, one of the pinnacles of invention and innovation, the suits went to new levels of impressive. However, this came with pros and cons, just like anything else. Some people thought that the excitement that new records and tech brought to the sport would increase the viewing audience and thus create a newly founded interest in swimming. However, those that experienced the suits and were around them know that it just doesn’t fit the sport of swimming. Not only a pain to get on and off (literally and figuratively), the suits took away from the pure skill, hard work, talent, and effort that professional swimmers put into their sport. Without the suits, we now see just how hard our athletes are working to constantly better themselves and others throughout the world. As one can see from this diagram, the swimming times have rapidly decreased in recent years. Such a fast decent in racing times cannot come from tried and true methods of practice, but a new piece of equipment – the polyurethane suits. These suits clearly changed the sport of swimming so intensely that they needed to be expelled from the sport for good. FINA’s new rules helped focus back on the main focus of the sport – athleticism.
As one can see more clearly in this diagram of just one race over the years, no times have been able to get as low as the world record achieved with the use of the polyurethane suit.
The times from this race have slowly been decreasing over time, as is customary, but the sharp drop in 2009 can only be attributed to the polyurethane suits, especially because of the sharp increase immediately following the ban. Overall, I fully support the FINA swimsuit ban, because it changed the sport of swimming back to just that – swimming, instead of a race of arms for the best technology.
“Australia Joins In Effort To Limit Bodysuits.” EBSCO. New York Times, 20 Dec. 2008. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
Crouse, Karen. “Swimming Bans High-Tech Suits, Ending an Era.” EBSCO. N.p., 25 July 2009. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.