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Why The Applause Must Wait Until 2010

Jul 25, 2009  - Craig Lord

Editorial: Tuesday will be a critical day in the history of swimming. Meaningful action will be taken in 2010. But the damage done and the damage that lies ahead over the next eight days in Rome requires many to be humble at this moment in time

When FINA announces its suit plans for 2010 on a day when Michael Phelps, the most successful swimmer in the history of his sport, stands up to race his first solo final of the 13th world championships, Cornel Marculescu, executive director of FINA, will expect the media to applaud. If FINA finally gets it right, relief will be tangible, there will be good reason to smile, to shake hands and to move on. I will be not be applauding.

There is work to be done yet on definition of textile and there is work to be done on profile definition. That in itself does not prevent celebration of a momentous day yesterday. It was the day that sank the bodysuit, it was the day that sank non-textiles, it was a day no longer dominated by suit makers, it was the day that swimming as a technique-based sport was revived just as the death knell sounded for the impostor that waved a false flag of technology and progress in the faces of a swimming community that was temporarily blinded by the rush of extra speed acquired at the donning of a suit. 

It was a day when swimming was returned to the swimmer.

Now for the detail. Experts tells us that to allow jammers to extend past the break in the upper thigh muscle allows anchoring, leaves room for engineering that enhances performance in ways many have come to understand much better in the past year. Those experts should have the ear of new President of FINA Julio Maglione and the Bureau he leads. Shorts are not a problem. Extending material down the leg is not a problem. Extending material down to the knee is a problem. 

FINA must not make the same mistake again: it has surely learned in the past year that every time it thinks it has made the right move, it finds that another problem arises. The good news is that by writing the details of suit profiles into guidelines for manufacturers that are governed by by-law not constitutional rules, the Bureau has the power to respond to events much faster than it otherwise would. Of course, there is danger in that ability to alter the seascape behind closed doors without reference to a body of nations, 168 of which left FINA in no doubt that the wind has blown strongly against the use of bodysuits and non-textile fabrics. 

"No misunderstandings, no secrets, no games," are the very words used by Marculescu in Rome yesterday. SwimNews will hold the FINA Bureau to that, starting with what emerges on Tuesday.

The FINA director has long said that, just as it was with doping, the media and others will ultimately come to applaud FINA. I will not. I will be happy to shake the hands of those who make the right decision but do not expect me to rise and clap, neither when FINA announces its 2010 plans on Tuesday nor when world records and ridiculous times flash up on the scoreboard in Rome. Swimming is well past the point of celebrating tardy decision-making that has caused mayhem and misery for many in the sport of swimming, well past the point of celebrating times that are meaningless. 

Racing is another thing and a world champion is a world champion, a race is a race. There is no level playing field in Rome. Events will indeed, as Denis Pursley, American head coach to Britain, noted accurately, take place in a "zoo atmosphere". We will witness a circus over the coming eight days. Nothing to de done. "Things will fall as they fall," said Pursley. 

FINA, of course, are not the only ones who need to be humble on Tuesday and in the weeks ahead as the federation hones the rules and guidelines that tell suit makers how to cut their cloth according to the sport they wish to sell their wares to. Federations, coaches, swimmers and many others have been complicit in swimming's sad suits saga. Many have now made amends and deserve to be forgiven (where forgiveness was required, and in some cases it surely was) and congratulated. 

But the ultimate authority rests with one body alone. FINA can expect forgiveness only if it listens to those who can help with the fine detail that requires understanding. Never again must we hear from the international federation: "we are not experts in  .... so we left it to the scientists and the commissions and the ...". 

That is hogwash and an abdication of duty. I am not an expert in hydrodynamic science, nor textiles, nor compression, nor drag.  I can read up on it and I can learn.  But long before turning to the library, I knew and know what I'm looking at, I can read a result sheet, I can watch the change in a swimmer, I can see the world rankings transfigured beyond recognition, I can witness an anomaly and know it for what it is. And I know when I see a storm approaching. Some saw the storm approaching in 2008 and did nothing. Commercial interests and the search for an edge over rivals were reasons along the spectrum of excuses found for not looking in a mirror and asking: do I feel comfortable in this skin? 

Let FINA learn more about swimming and the art of storm-warning and may it commit to being proactive, not reactive, may it commit to favouring duty and service to the sport of swimming over politics and power, the twin corruptive forces that will ultimately run like sand through the fingers of those who worship them. FINA should know too that the commercial interests and bottom lines of suit makers are not its responsibility. The only thing that counts is to provide the environment in which great racing can take place in standardised, fair conditions that work in the interests of all competitors. 

There are a fair few folk who have worked tirelessly in the background of the suits saga to provide just that and help  to steer FINA and worldwide swimming in the right direction. There will come a time when we can name them (though they know who they are and that is often enough) and applaud their work.

Meanwhile, swimming will rise again in 2010. Only then will the roar of applause that follows human excellence in the race pool be truly worthwhile hearing once more.