FINA bans bodysuits that have led to spate of world records


In the coming days here at the outdoor pool of the famed Foro Italico, when the World Swimming Championships are fully underway, there will be moments of absolute triumph as more records fall.

By next year, though, these records may well carry asterisks.

Blame it on the suits.

After two years in which rapidly changing technology helped swim apparel dominate the sport almost as much as Michael Phelps, FINA, the international governing body of swimming, on Friday banned controversial full-body suits, including some versions of Speedo’s groundbreaking LZR Racer, which was designed with help from NASA.


Called “technological doping” by critics, these revolutionary swimsuits have been responsible for a rash of world records -- 17 long-course marks already in 2009 and more than 130 overall starting from 2008. In the wake, a Wild West atmosphere has consumed apparel manufacturers and swimmers trying to gain a competitive edge.

Yet, in turning back the clock to correct one problem, FINA’s congress immediately exacerbated another on the eve of the championships, which start Sunday.

“There’s going to be an issue no more,” said FINA Executive Director Cornel Marculescu.

Not on the question of what to wear, perhaps, but what should be said about records that have been set by swimmers wearing the high-tech suits? The ban still must be approved by the FINA Bureau on Tuesday -- all indications are that the vote will be a formality -- but it won’t take effect until 2010.

Phelps, who holds five individual world records along with 14 Olympic gold medals, isn’t worried. Of course, Speedo’s most famous pitchman, who is here to compete in the worlds, also is one of the few stars of the sport who have not been tempted by each new generation of swimsuits.

“A swimsuit’s a swimsuit,” said Phelps, who Olympic gold medalist Gary Hall once said could roll out of bed “in cutoffs and break the world record.”

“If you’re ever going to compete at a high level and compete consistently, it’s going to be because of the work you do in training. I’ve worked as hard as I can to get to where I am now, and I’ve put in countless hours.

“I like it,” Phelps said of the ban. “I think it’s going to be good.”

Friday’s news, though, set off a growing debate in the swimming community about how to define the record-setting performances since the sport went spinning out of control in early 2008 when the LZR Racer was introduced.

USA Swimming’s Mark Schubert has been known to favor asterisks to define those swims. His boss, Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming’s executive director, does not.

“I don’t think we want to do anything to tarnish the performances of the athletes of the past,” Wielgus said. “Debate is human.”

FINA’s congress also stipulated the swimsuit coverage area must be between the waist and knees for men and not beyond the shoulders or below the knees for women. FINA said suits may be made only from “textiles,” though officials said the definition of that would still have to be worked out.

Speedo set the early pace last year, igniting pre-Olympic controversy over whether its swimsuits provided an unfair advantage.

Since the Beijing Games, though, the line has moved so far, so fast that even the slow-moving FINA decided to act.

Swimmers were wearing two, even three suits (now illegal) to get an edge while newer offerings from Italian swimsuit makers Arena and Jaked featured enhancing material, Arena with part-polyurethane and Jaked with all-polyurethane.

The high-tech suits are stitch-free, low-drag and super-light and help shed water along the surface of the suit.

“The thing that’s really hurt more than anything else is that the whole suit situation has devalued the athletes,” said USC Coach Dave Salo, who has been a member of the Olympic staff. “They’re standing in line for an hour to get a suit. How many companies are going to sponsor an athlete that’s scrambling to pick up your suit because it’s the latest thing?

“A lot of them are not sure what suits they should wear to create an even playing field. They’re all complaining about the suits and it’s out of control. . . . When FINA didn’t define the rules, it opened up this huge quagmire for all these companies to say, ‘Oh, there’s no rules.’ ”

Meanwhile, French Olympians Amaury Leveaux and Aurore Mongel, both affiliated with suit-maker TYR Sport Inc., filed a request with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, contending they have been denied the opportunity to wear the B8 (full polyurethane) suit. A spokesman for the Huntington Beach company said other competitors are being allowed to wear full polyurethane suits from another manufacturer

“Some people will say it is a step in the right direction,” TYR co-founder and executive vice president Steve Furniss said of FINA action. “We will just say it’s a step.

“Two things are for certain. First, TYR will continue to innovate within the rules, and secondly, it does not change the here and now. Though the proposed new rules may create a level playing field in the future, we should be asking the athletes competing in Rome just how level they think the playing field is for the world championships.”

Swimmer Matt Grevers, who won two golds and a silver at the Beijing Olympics and is competing at the worlds, knows it will be different without the high-tech suits.

“We’re probably going to jump back in time a bit. We’re going to go back to the times we had before,” he said. “It’s a little strange. We’re going fast now. We’re feeling great.

“We go back to the old school,” he said, referring to the old swimsuits, “and races are really going to hurt more.”

Salo and Grevers joked that swimmers are going to have to get in better shape, and not let the suit do all the work.

“It’s about the swimmer now,” Grevers said. “I think it’s going to be a little different in training too. You’re probably going to have to be a little more fit. You can’t be sagging, and tuck it in the suit.”

Said Salo: “It devalued athleticism. A lot of these kids who aren’t in very good shape can put on one of these suits and they were streamlined like a seal. Seals don’t have to be skinny.”