Thieves at FINA: Does swimming need techsuits?

I never actually saw one up close, but I was relieved last year when FINA banned racing suits made with high technology fabrics, often called hi-tech suits, techsuits or just bodysuits. Brand names included Aquablades, Aquapel, Fastskins, LZR Racers and X-Glides. Based on long debates on rec.sport.swimming in the late 1990s, I had decided that techsuits were helping swimmers swim faster without streamlining technique, and felt that I would rather root for a swimmer than a suit.

Speaking to Swimming World, however, Evan Morgenstein, an agent for pro swimmers, bemoans the loss of marketing opportunities for his potential clients:

SW:… Now before we get into specifics can you give us just a general idea right now of how the market is for swimmers?

Evan: Oh it is terrible. I mean if you were a swimmer looking to make this a career. There could be a worse time to do it. You know unfortunately when the thieves at FINA made a decision that they were going to get rid of the techsuits. What they did was they almost bankrupted several of the swimwear companies and they have never recovered from that because they were so vested in that, but they actually hurt the sport and hurt the popularity of the sport. People love Olympics sports like swimming because of world records and although there were a couple of world records broken in London comparative to Beijing there was virtually no records broken and that is a shame. Technology changes in every other sport.

I watch swimming for the competition and form, not for the records but Tony Austin at SCAQblog, feels that the suits were unfairly demonized:

The techsuits were once criticized for being so cost prohibitive for poor families that they were an uworkable choice for swimmers. I wrote that this was a red herring so as to obfuscate the truth – most swim families are affluent and a simple rule to disallow techsuits at the junior level was quite acceptable on moral grounds. But some five years later a pair a jammers are actually costs more than the techsuits back in the day.

I don’t find that persuasive. Yes, many swim families are affluent, but more and more people are becoming less and less affluent. Also, like most sports, swimming had been trying to attract minority participation. It seemed to us on r.s.s that expensive suits that only last a few races would tend to discriminate against poorer athletes.

I also think the hi-tech suit issue reminded many of us of the hi-tech bike issue in triathlons. Suddenly amateur triathletes were faced with competing against opponents that could afford to significantly drop their times with so-called ‘aero’ components and helmets that cost more than our entire bikes. As I recall, the more egregious add-on aero equipment was disallowed but tribikes have incorporated many aero features and now cost more than average road bikes.

I do understand the revenue issue. I once spent quite a bit on just the right tennis racquet, shoes and apparel. I own three bicycles. Last summer I invested in Louis Garnier bike shoes, a Camelbak hydropak, various blinkies. I also regularly buy New Balance running shoes, Aeltrex orthotics, and high visibility jerseys and jackets. Professional tennis players, cyclists and runners have quite a few endorsement opportunities. I spend less on swimwear and equipment. My jammers and goggles don’t cost all that much, though I have spent a lot on swim timers and I do pay for a club membership.

So fast techsuits could represent endorsement opportunities for swimmers if they were allowed in races. And so could fins, paddles and leg floats. I train with a lot of swimmers that use short fins for their entire workout. Some use monofins and snorkels. Allowing fins in competition would certainly rewrite the record books, and would be another endorsement opportunity. Most hand paddles are unwieldy but I could imagine that some sort of glove with webbed fingers would make any swimmer catch more water. And everyone knows that leg floats immediately reduce leg drag and make you faster.

So if we were to allow bodysuits so we can set more world records, why not allow any hi-tech device that takes away the need to develop better form? I think the reason is that body suits were simply less obvious about what effect they had.

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