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The Fickle Nature Of Fairness And Fast Suits

Jul 23, 2009  - Craig Lord

On the most eve of any world championships since FINA set the series in motion back in 1973, swimmers, coaches and officials wore their hearts on the sleeves and pointed a finger at the culprit: FINA.

The next eight days of racing will be about just that: racing, not times, just places. It can be nothing more than that. Thompson said that the media had a choice: talk suits or talk athletic performance.

How, came the first question, dod you want us to assess athletic performance when we don't know where the suit ends and the swimmer starts?

Thompson said many meaningful and understandable things. Here is a useful selection at this time in swimming history:

"None of us have been strong enough.  We cannot let it [the suits crisis] get past this week. If we do, then swimming will be seen as the joke of world sport."

He acknowledged responsibility for having gone along with the flow that led to the falls. "There was a level playing field in Melbourne 2007. The best athletes won until April 2007 when the world got together to race. 

No-one realised ... actually, the only man who realised in February 2008 when Eamon set the world record (50m freestyle) that there might be a problem was Forbes Carlile... but no-one was really listening". On the eve of Manchester 2008, a few listened to this but nothing stirred, even after the verdict was returned on the Manchester scorebaord. "We all knew there was a problem by the start of the Olympic Games. We did nothing," said Thompson. "That was the time that something ought to have been done. Pressure now has to be brought to bear on FINA and it will always be there until they've made the right decision."

It was well past the time, said Thompson, when swimming performance should be given back to swimmers and when coaches should be able to get back to coaching, not suit testing. With the above words, Thomspon rises in the estimation of many who had been deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the LZR was ok, what followed was the devil. The truth is, as Thompson suggests, all of it has been bad to one degree or another. 

Swimmers are said to have freedom of suit choice in Rome. It is Hobson's Choice. Libby Trickett will stay loyal to Speedo and wear the LZR, come what may. "I wouldn't have picked it if I wasn't happy. After testing the other suits, it reaffirmed my confidence in Speedo," she told a news conference on Thursday. I know if I put it on a certain way it won't rip."

She spoke eloquently about her love of swimming. Her words were heartening to hear. "It gets a bit boring talking about it. I'm looking forward to a time where no one asks what suits they were wearing. We need to not be distracted." I asked how she would assess events in Rome given the tortured nature of the conditions delivered by FINA. Trickett replied: "Because there have been so many world records broken, you wonder how much meaning they have compared to 10 years ago. But being world champion is still something to be admired."

Indeed it is, but all will doubtless wish to keep at the back of their minds that celebration ought to go hand-in-hand with honesty. However much cheering is done from Sunday onwards, however many backs are patted, however many glasses are chinked and flags waved, nothing can change the fact that swimming will unfold in what coach Denis Pursley described a "zoo atmosphere", a circus that relies on a suit and has no bond with swimming history.

An example has been in the world for a few weeks. There is a young talent in Rome who says he feels "insulted" when people suggest that he has done what he has done because of a suit. Some might say: so take the suit off and put a different one on, one that is not open to question. It might also be pointed out that at no stage in the truly magnificent and amazing career of Michael Phelps did he get close to some of the annual improvements on the clock of aforementioned disgruntled talent. Is it insulting to point that out? No. It is the truth.

Understandable that Thompson wants truth to end at the swimmer but many ask: how can it. "I really hope we can finish talking about swimsuits today. We've had enough of this discussion. I am hoping FINA provides strong leadership over the next few days," he said with anger in his voice. "We've come to swim. It's not a fashion parade."

That quote had overtones of the infamous "we came to swim not sing" from a GDR coach when asked about the deep voices of his women swimmers. Of course, suits are not doping. But the current generation of apparel needs to be outlawed, and the sooner the better can be the only verdict of anyone who has witnessed the heartache, confusion and upset that suits have caused for over a year and continue to cause here in Rome.

This has hardly been an ideal way to prepare for a world championships. Choices, choices, choices and more choices. All suits. The likeable Andrew Lauterstein, a 100m butterfly world-title contender and a man most confused by events around him, confirmed that he will wear the 01 shiny suit that he must wear if he has to stand up and race the likes of Rafa Munoz and others who will have the red-hot-poker of the hours on the skin that has been somewhat negated in the water that has been somewhat negated. 

Lauterstein has put his Speedo funding at risk in order to remain competitive. He has signed up to the mantra of Thomspon's team talk on the way to Rome: "No fear, No Limits". He was not prepared to compete in a "handicap race". The LZR would be a handicap. He was asked how he felt about Phelps and the loyalty shown by the likes of the American and his teammate Trickett. Phelps had a "massive endorsement deal", he noted, and the issue came down to an individual choice. Each man for himself.

"It's a tough question. Stolly (Grant Stoelwinder, his coach] asked me the question and then told me to remember that the other guys will be wearing. The suits thing is really doing my head in."

How would he go about tackling the psychology of a return to textile in 2010, should that come about and cause a relative and explanable dip in times on the clock? "It's a pretty interesting situation," he replied and pondered the journey ahead. 

Teammate Brenton Rickard is thinking less about such things. He is thinking "race". No time, no record, no ranking. Just race. The pace he will need is beyond his best. He knows he can go there because he had worked hard lifted his game and "with the suit I can meet those levels". Those levels meaning getting in the medals mix in the midst of bloated sub-minute and sub-2:10 clubs.

Rickard drew a blank when asked if he knew Marco Koch, the European record holder. Over at the German press conference, Koch sat alongside Paul Beidermann and Britta Steffen. 

Head coach Dirk Lange's position is that Germany now has a fast suit in which it can compete with confidence, a year after having had to compete with no confidence and no access to the LZR suit of the hour in Beijing. As such he did not feel that swimmers needed to face constant suit questions. Germany was "ready for battle".

Steffen confirmed as much. She was asked whether she thought it unfair that Marleen Veldhuis of the Netherlands had been denied access to a Hydrofoil in the build-up to Rome and was not now prepared to alter her preparation a few days out in the way that the FINA executive suggested was a normal way to get ready for "fairness" at a world championship.

Of course, there was no fairness on the issue in 2008 and there is no fairness in 2009. The whole sage is divisive and lamentable for many.

The issue divides friend and foe alike. As Britain teammates Rebecca Adlington, loyal to the LZR and of a mind to avoid suits that she considers "like doping", and Joanne Jackson, in the Hydrofoil, find themselves at the centre of dispute over which suit is a worst offender than another, Britain officials considered a media blanket on suit talk from Friday onwards. 

Others team are saying similar things: please don't talk only of suits. Hard not too though when entire national teams are queuing up at the beach hut handout stalls like beggars at the banquet. There is poison in a pool that denies Veldhuis the same suit as Steffen, who wears a suit that was not available until this week and when asked whether Trickett in her LZR is at a disadvantage answers without hesitation: "Yes".

Lange felt it unfair to ask the athlete whether the availability of suits was unfair. It was a question for adidas and FINA, said Steffen. Indeed, and the question is: if there was a Hydrofoil for most members of the Aussie team in Manchester last week and for Brits and others too, why was one of the Olympic champion's main rivals denied access? 

Lange said he felt there was fairness. What he meant, perhaps was that it is just as fair this summer as last. 1-1. Unfairness cancelled out by more unfairness.

Rome 2009 will be anything but fair, it will be anything but measurable in a meaningful way. It will, as Lauterstein and Rickard and Trickett and Steffen and Biedermann (who will not be swimming in his birthday suit despite a slight and amusing Freudian slip in the choice of his words today in Rome) and many more suggested, be about a race for a place "in semis, in finals and for medals".  

The fickle nature of fairness is everywhere in swimming right now. 

Which is why Jim Wood, coach and President of USA Swimming said that the vote to insert the words "or swimsuit" in SW10.7 was "very good but it's a very small step". The rule delivered, the suit limit now needed to be set. And Wood was happy for Jan 1, 2010 to mark the new start. That would give FINA "plenty of time to work out the wordings and definitions necessary.

 He described as "discouraging" the constant process of talking to FINA but feeling as if much was falling on deaf ears. "In all honesty ... that shareholders are the millions of hard-working athletes around the world. It is time for us to take action if [FINA} won't. This is a situation where ALL need to be concerned with fairness. Suits no longer help swimmers reach their potential. There has to be fairness or we have no sport."