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The Answer Has Been There Since Archimedes

Feb 18, 2009  - Craig Lord

Suit Week Sequel – Part 1: On Friday in Lausanne, suit makers and others will sit with FINA in a meeting that will ultimately lead to a decision on the next stroke: will swimming stay true to its nature as a unique sport or will suits will be allowed to enhance performance? The question and answer is more simple than some would have us believe - and it boils down to schoolbook physics

Last October, we ran Suit Week across six articles - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, - and debate about the impact of new suits in 2008 took on new life. Conscious that all was not well in its world, FINA director Cornel Marculescu did the right thing and revealed the international federation’s commitment to seek a solution through a think-tank forum, just as new players were preparing to make a big impact in the pool. Things had gone too far, said USA Swimming , and by December, coaches from around the world made known their views, and at the European s/c championships in Rijeka a deckside protest was staged and a petition handed to LEN for forwarding to FINA. Australia joined the chorus for a return to a time when a suit was a suit and not a performance-enhancing device – and by the turn of an extraordinary year, LEN and other swimming leaders were committed to righting the wrong of 2008.

Over the next 48 hours, SwimNews, in a spirit of promoting better understanding of the topic of discussion in Lausanne on Friday, will focus on why swimming is unique, that aspect of the sport that has changed radically in the past 12 months as the spirit of FINA rule SW10.7 was broken and "fast-suit" devices were allowed to provide artificial props to performance. What follows is an overview of where we are as a precursor to explaining why none of us should be blinded by science. The answers to the problem that afflicted swimming in 2008 do not rest in complex science that only boffins of great brain can fathom.

The answers rest in a common-sense approach to a subject that all in swimming can understand. It boils down to basic physics. So, if anyone should hear from anyone else this week - and over the coming few ahead as we approach that decisive March meeting of the FINA Bureau in Dubai - that the answer rests in complex science that only a handful of learned folk can understand, send them away with a flea in their ear. 

  • Below we outline what happened, what the problem is and what is at stake
  • In this article on flotation, we get to the heart of a problem that must be solved to preserve the rare and special nature of swimming
  • and tomorrow we pose questions, get answers and look at what kind of test would be needed if FINA is going to retain control of the sport of swimming.


Much has been spoken about the need for scientific evidence to quantify and explain what happened in the pool in 2008. The answer has been there for far longer than the lifespan of FINA. 

Let's start at the beginning: the Greek mathematician, Archimedes, described both leverage and flotation over 2,000 years ago - and as such, somewhat tardy is the call for evidence of what caused a retrograde stroke for swimming into a world that had been rejected under FINA rules almost since the birth of the international federation in 1908.
If the work of the Greek pioneer was truly significant to the development of human understanding, then the same might be said of the first man to fall into a river and, in a desperate search for a way of keeping his head above water, clung to a passing log for all his life depended on in.

In competitive swimming, flotation is against the rules (though some nails may need to be driven into the following wording given the events of 2008):

SW10.7: " ... no swimmer shall use a device that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance".

An early opportunity to enforce that rule was lost but the time for antagonism is over and understanding of the issues in the suit debate runs deeper. By the end of 2008, the stewards of swimming had understood more fully (and started to seek solutions to) the artificial nature of what they had opened a floodgate to: flotation, the one thing that changes a swimmer's position and efficiency in water without the need for that swimmer to have worked on core strength and technique. The phenomenon can be observed fairly widely and extends, of course, to the world of masters: some, on almost no technical and coaching input, and racing off the back of the same type of work and numbers of sessions per week, have lobbed chunks off their best times simply by donning a "miracle" suit. 

There is no miracle, of course. It comes down to basic laws of nature and how those can be applied artificially to change the nature of the beast by helping it to float better than it might otherwise do so.

The stewards of swimming are well down the road to seeking a solution to the chaos of a year in which the headline-108 world records in the pool was merely the tip of an iceberg of faster times from myriad swimmers from myriad progress and nations around the world.

At no time in the history of swimming has the entire world of swimming advanced almost as one. Here's one of many stark examples of progress on the clock that stretches well beyond just those stepping up to break world records:

50m freestyle l/c


  • The speed of Popov's passing

  • Jan 2008: 21.64 - world record, from 2000, and world rank No1

  • Dec 2008: 21.64 - 10th best performer; 20th best performance

  • World record now 21.28 (Eamon Sullivan - AUS)

  • The speed of Biondi's passing
- Matt Biondi clocked 21.85 in 1990. And here's the pace of change:

  • In 2004: 21.85 - 5th best performer; 5th best performance

  • Jan 2008: 21.85 - 10th best performer; 11th best performance

  • Dec 2008: 21.85 - 19th best performer; 63rd best performance

The flood is just one face of fast-forward year. At no other time in swimming history have so many swimmers benefited specifically from the suit they wore at the expense of swimmers for whom that same new thing on their skin proved to be not nearly as effective because they were already blessed with natural angle buoyancy in water - or in other words, because nature had already given them an advantage. 

Whether in the world of doping or suit making, there are those who still stand on a platform of "what's the difference - nature is unfair". Indeed, nature may well be unfair - but it is nature, the very nature that helps to place some at the helm of their sport (but never on its own grants or guarantees victory), the very nature that was negated by suit development in 2008.

There is another slant to the "nature" argument. Without any intention to compare current suits to doping (though the term "doping suit" would undoubtedly one day be legitimate without the good governance of FINA), swimming must not be blind to the fact that the Big Suit Debate has, in all probability, been exploited by some who seek any way of masking doping practices. There were some performances in 2008 that simply could not be explained away by a "fast suit".

Having overlooked Rule SW10.7, the guardians of swimming, purposefully or not, consented to flotation devices being worn by swimmers. No coincidence that some wore two, three or even four suits in racing in the face of a history of a sport in which such practice was confined to the training pool because it made swimmers work harder. The fact is that the rows and rows of relay quartets who wore two and three suits at the European s/c Championships in Rijeka in December did so because they had understood the fundamental advantage of the new suits (of all kinds and brands to one degree or another): flotation. 

Restricting suit use to one suit may be important but it is not a solution in its own right. FINA knows that and the experts that it has been speaking to have led internal debate and discussion in the right direction, according to sources close to those who will carry the votes in March and July this year.

There are those who would like to call the debate "hugely complex", those who refer to “science and progress” as being "impossible to control", those who would have us all believe that a suit can be compared to a lung, an arm or anything else that may provide natural advantage or disadvantage in the pool.

In seeking constructive solution, FINA called for a period of calm reflection and intelligent discussion backed up by "scientific" evidence. Whatever that means, it MUST NOT mean this:

In the words of Marcin Sochacki, CEO, Rocket Science Sports: "If the purists of this sport really want this to be man to man, then everyone should be on the exact same sleep schedule, nutrition plan/products and be set up to compete against others with the exact same hand size, lung capacity, arm and leg length including hight etc. Even then, someone is still going to have some sort of advantage however slight it might be. Where will the line be drawn in that direction?" Here was my reaction at the time.

I've heard such nonsense spoken in other context before. Far more serious context, some would say. Context that, some say, does not warrant comparison. I say that, driven not by a desire to cheat but a wish for commercial advantage perceived by a long-term techno war in the sport, the philosophical parallel with doping practice is too close for comfort. In 1993, Erik de Bruin, a man who was proved to have cheated and also married a swimmer who was proved to have manipulated a doping test, told De Volkskrant, the Dutch paper: "Is drug-taking ethically irresponsible? If that is the case, trade and industry and politics can all be tarred with the same brush. Sport as a whole is an unfair game. Would it be competition falsification that one athlete has been blessed with a great deal of talent over another who may have to work bitterly hard in training to achieve the same?"

The answer to that question (alongside a rejection of sport v politics and industry as valid comparison) is the same that must be given to the men from Rocket: no, of course it would not be competition falsification. It would be fair. It would be natural. The opposite view is revolting. A sporting Uriah Heap of a place. Swimming is not a competition of suits. It is a competition of swimmers - and should remain so.  There is no place in the pool for "devices" that contribute so significantly to performance that they cannot be ignored, no matter how many might have wished otherwise in 2008.

One of the roots of the current suit problem rests in the nature of the relationship between the non-profit-making regulatory entity that governs swimming worldwide – FINA – and one of its major sponsors, Speedo, which is a business, a commercial entity, one which survives because it turns a profit and has every reason to advertise its product and get that product on to as many humans as possible. 

There is nothing wrong is those two entities entering into symbiotic relationships, provided that a respectful and critical distance is maintained: it is not for any suit maker in the room in Lausanne on Friday to tell FINA how to structure its world, not for them to say what is and what is not acceptable in terms of suits or other equipment. Ah, but they are the experts, we are told. Yes - and so are the biggest food and pharmaceutical companies in the world, companies that make billions of dollars from doing business with the public. In between company and public is government – and it is for (democratically elected is my preference) government to put in place the rules, regulations and laws that say what is and what is not acceptable. FINA is government. Quite proper for them to talk to the suit makers, quite right to take their advice. But ultimately, it is FINA that carries the responsibility for the environment in which swimming racing takes place. That responsibility was the very raison d’etre of FINA and the men and women who devote great deal of their lives and energies at the governance end of the pool doubtless understand that well.

And in that light and spirit, they will know what to do should the Rocket men repeat at the meeting on Friday that mantra of comparing the natural to the unnatural: show them the door, of the meeting room and of the sport. It is a bad path to a bad land. Swimming is not the Wild West, a free for all in which as long as you succeed and make money out of it, all is well. Swimming is a different place. Swimming should send a strong message of intolerance to all who argue for the use of props and artificial aids to performance. None at the meeting in Lausanne would condone the use of doping in sport (we hope and believe most sincerely). Nor should any come away believing that other types of props and artificial aids are welcome.

Sochacki says this: "What sets our swim skin apart from anything seen before are several unique features to solve the issues that plagued other designs. The first is the material thickness. We are using the thinnest and most stretchy 0.3mm fabric on the market which is coated with super low drag Yamamoto SCS coating and allows for better fit, less heat buildup and the freedom of movement expected by pure swimmers. Because we now have the stretch and most freedom of movement we were able to cover the shoulders and arms with the Yamamoto SCS coating which has 50 times less drag than the human skin. This makes our suit 40% more efficient in the water than other sleeveless models. The difference in glide stroke is especially amazing."


Blah, blah, blah ... but what we need to know is: does it increase flotation in the swimmer, does it improve buoyancy, does it change angle buoyancy? A thickness of 0.3mm is a boast fit to score brownie points in some circles. Not this one. Thickness is, to a large extent, a red herring in a world where a suit can be 0.3mm thick yet still provide flotation, still aid buoyancy, as some of the latest suits most certainly do. If you hear anyone talk about thickness of suit material, ask them what flotation tests have been applied to their suit – flotation tests that test for effect on a human body, not in a bath full of water but no human body.

Some on Friday in Lausanne may yet wish to talk of "complex issues". There may well be devil in some detail but that should not detract from the simple foundation of thought on which the future direction of the sport of swimming must rest: flotation and the effective angle of an individual's aquatic signature have been altered in 2008, resulting in the shift of a suit as a neutral or encumbering necessity into an apparatus.

The introduction (for the first time in swimming history) of an apparatus, a tool, a device, into racing, has caused a shift in the direction of the sport.
We have heard all the arguments about improvements to performance gleaned by the race environment, such as lane lines, blocks, gutters, flags, water temperature and quality, and so on. None of those equate to a suit. Not a single one. Chalk and cheese.

Here is truth: a flotation device worn on the body changes the interaction of the nervous system with the environment.

It is this phenomenon of direct interaction with the environment that has always made swimming unique among other sports. We have heard the hollow cry of those who defend 2008 flotation swimsuits as “advancement” similar to improvements in golf clubs or tennis racquets. Pure nonsense. In tennis and golf, the apparatus is the sport. Any comparison to swimming is irrelevant and specious.


Swimming is a non-technology activity. Fundamentally, it is a contest about the interaction of the human nervous system and brain, directly with water and the aquatic environment. None of the supporting appliances in swimming change this fundamental aspect of swimming, not even goggles, which provided all with the same advantage: clear vision.

The introduction into swimming of devices and tools that change the interaction of the brain and nervous system with the water, will NOT change the sport - they will kill it dead in the water - and replace it with a whole new sport. Swimming as we have loved it and known it will be extinct. A new sport will have taken its place, one in which the roles of swimmer, coach, sports scientist, land condition expert, nutritionist and so on are all diminished. A sport which dictates the need to name the garment being worn every time a swimmer races because the suit will be too significant to ignore and the difference between suits and the effect those have on different body types will play a large part in any race result.

To those who shrug and declare "what's the problem -  we've all got the suits so it's the same for all of us", I say, no it's not the same for all. We now have a sport in which the suit helps some more than others.
We had a glimpse of that new sport in 2008. It was ugly. Truly ugly. A pale imitation of the real thing, with the work of the swimmer, coach and the very sport of swimming held hostage to the will of suit makers etc, held hostage by the suit makers, from those who could substantiate their "scientific" claims to those who serve spin in the hope of turning a fast buck in a sport that was too ready to provide a warm welcome to a suit that broke the spirit of SW10.7 and in so doing cracked the floodgates off their hinges to the delight of gatecrashers who changed the music the moment they got a foot in the door.

There is no point in comparing pre-February 2008 performances to those that have unfolded since; no point in comparing Popov to the sprinters who stole the show in 2008, for they were not engaged in the same sport. Gone, for a year at least, was meaning and tradition. Never before have the world rankings of the sport been so transfigured in breadth and depth.

Take the women's 100m backstroke. Natalie Coughlin (USA) has long displayed a natural position in water that tells even a casual observer that she has a natural advantage when traveling through water. Some of that is nature, some of it long-term nurture. It is what 1991 world champion Jorg Hoffmann was getting at when he noted that some of those he now coaches know that they need not endure core work, need not focus singularly on a fine aspect of technique that may improve their efficiency in water, because they know that "the suit will do it" for them.

Coughlin was Olympic champion in 2004 four years after Diana Mocanu (ROU), winner in Sydney 2000. Mocanu might have expected to slide down the ranking in time but by Jane 2008, she still enjoyed a lofty place in the pool of swim stats. But how the picture changed in less than a year:

  • The speed of Mocanu's passing

  • Jan 2008: WR - 59.44 Coughlin; Mocanu 1:00.21 (2000), 5th best ever performer; 20th best performance

  • Dec 2008: WR - ; Mocanu 1:00.21 - 17th best ever performer; 103rd best performance

But look, say those who excuse the 2008 suits, the fact is that swimmers train more often that they used to, that sports science, money, smarter, better coaching (and on and on) ... and that's what made the difference.

Yes, we would have expected progress in 2008, yes, some coaches and others will have discovered new tricks that work a treat, yes, it is possible for a swimmer to turn himself or herself around and convert from long-term also-swum to a cutting-blade prospector of Olympic gold.
But it is also true that just about every swimmer you come across on the glorious and painful journey to the Olympic podium will declare hand on heart "I never did it for the money". I believe them. No reason not to. 

As for harder work, well, Popov for one did harder, longer and smarter things with coach Touretski than many (possibly most) of those who have confined him (and how) to a slower bygone era in the wink of an eye beyond his retirement; Darnyi and Egerszegi - hard to find swimmers in the world who endured what they endured to hone exceptional natural talent and physiologies more fit to float in the right fighting position that the majority of rivals around them. Examples are legion.

But look, the excusers bleat, there has always been progress. It was only natural for Popov to succumb to the flood. True - over 10 to 15 years. Not over 10 months. Never before. Not even close.

Constructive dialogue between coaches, suit makers and FINA is already well underway and Friday this week will see a further clarification of position: whether to create statutory regulations, to allow the de facto rule changes to stand, and thus to allow the continuation and evolution of the sport which has replaced swimming; or to clarify and enforce the existing regulations, which would re-establish the original sport and rid the waters of an preposterous impostor.

Important, some believe, to give a strong say to suit makers. No problem there - provided that the ultimate decision of what is and is not permitted in the pool rests with FINA and is backed up by sound rules, principles and guiding knowledge.

We await to see what comes out of the meeting on Friday and what FINA decides in March and July. There is reason to believe that the international federation will do the right thing. And as it heads down a better road, it might also take the opportunity to make clear to suit makers the nature of their relationship with the sport: FINA’s duty of care is just as great to swimmers, coaches and parents (the buyers, and very much key to that commercial argument in the sense that without buyers the sellers are dead in the water) as it is to the suit makers (the sellers). In just the same way that swimmers and others need to sign up to compliance with rules and anti-doping procedures, so too should suit makers sign, as part of the approvals process, a statement of compliance when it comes down to adhering to any new parameters that FINA may put in place.

It may well be that a solution to the suit issue has to be staged and the full extent of a new regime may not be in place in time for Rome. If the end result is that swimming returns to a pool in which the result (not just the speed but the result, the order in which swimmers finish) sheet is not skewed specifically by the suit, the wait will have been worthwhile. That said, FINA is aware  that all that can be done to avoid the worst aspects of Rijeka being replicated in Rome must be done to safeguard investment and reputation and deliver a fair championship, one that need not be swallowed with a heavy dose of asterisk.

Important to note: there is no middle way: room for suit development and innovation, yes, but no room for the one thing that drove progress on the clock in 2008: flotation. And on that note, hail Rule SW10.7 (" ... no swimmer shall use a device that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance"). It was there all along. It just got ignored. Now is no time to alter that rule radically. The rule is good. Time to enforce it and back it up with independent testing and compliance.

Before Friday dawns, no-one in swimming should feel locked out of discussion. This not rocket science. Far from it. The nature of the problem and the solution are things that we can all understand. Here's the nature of the problem. And tomorrow, we take expert guidance on where the sport can find the solution.