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World Swimming Mauled By Suits In Rome

Jul 26, 2009  - Craig Lord

When history no longer hangs by a thread but is severed, when the six world records on the clock ring hollow, when legends of the race pool are reduced to footnotes in the wash of a fast-suited swell and even the head of the Olympic movement shifts uneasily in his chair as the Roman crowd bay for more, the only thing left on the first night of finals at the 13th world championships was the battle itself. 

And from that, Italy's Federica Pellegrini and Britain's Joanne Jackson and Rebecca Adlington emerged heads held high in a 400m freestyle final in which Lioness of Verona mauled her rivals just as world swimming has been mauled by suits.

In other circumstances,  Pellegrini's 3mins 59.15sec effort in the 400m freestyle would have gone down as a 4-minute mile moment in water. For a woman to have broken a barrier that was first breached by a man, Rick Demont, of the US, at the first world championships back in 1973, is truly sensational. To have done so by such a big margin in front of home fans on a balmy night in Rome was a gift from the Gods that tower over the Foro Italico complex on stone pedestals of the like that photogenic Pellegrini surely carved for herself tonight. Rome will await her like the rain.

The swimming world surely knows that her time owes a great deal to the shiny Jaked01 performance-enhancing suit that buoyed her into the history books but will be banned from the sport next year. Impossible to celebrate this for what it ought to be. We witnessed history but the moment was not historic.

 So will the suits of Jackson (adidas Hydrofoil) and Adlington (Speedo LZR) be banished. They came closer to the 4-minute mark than anyone beyond the Italian ever has, with respective best times of 4:00.60, Commonwealth and British record, and 4:00.79. The suits taint the times but the win came of Pellegrini's perfect timing, one that told a tale of lessons learned: at the Olympic Games in Beijing, she raced at the pace of the Brits and got overhauled on the way home to find herself locked out of the medals. The Italian remained a danger, however. She recovered in Beijing to win the 200m freestyle and became the first Italian woman to win in the Olympic pool.

Pellegrini deprived Jackson of her 4:00.66 world mark with a 4:00.41 win at the Mediterranean Games last month. Last night, she swam a wiser race, setting the pace but staying just a stroke ahead of the British pair, Jackson beside her and Adlington out of the heat of the fight in outside lane 8 courtesy of a sluggish morning heats swim. Turning into the last 100m, Pellegrini showed just why she is Olympic champion and world record holder in the 200m: she sprinted at a pace that neither Brit could handle, let alone the rest of a field by then fading into a bit part.

The pace of suits-driven progress is dizzying. Some say sickening and apt ot be unbelievable, so much so that 168 nations last week voted for a return to all-textile suits and a cut back in profile that will confine the bodysuit to history along with all the records that have been slain in it, including the 141 global standards set since Speedo launched its LZR in February 2008. Since then, suit wars has seen a bloom of wetsuit lookalikes that swimmers and coaches have described as "technological doping" and "speedboats".

Pity for Germany's Paul Biedermann that his felling of Ian Thorpe's monumental 400m freestyle global standard should be received with a sigh. He was cheered as well, of course, but to regard him as having broken Thorpe's record rings untrue. It was man and suit that did the job. Some might argue the the same was true of Thorpe but that misses the point of the significance and speed of the journey on suits in the past year. Bedermann's breathtaking 3mins 40.07 victory in the 400m freestyle owed something to an arena X-Glide suit that help him home a staggering 1.27sec faster than the Australian and his legendary size-17 kick down the last length of eight. 

The same suit was worn on the way to a 56.44sec world record by 15-year-old Sarah Sjostrom, of Sweden, in a 100m butterfly semi-final that read the last rites to Olympic champion Inge de Bruijn's Beamonesque performance from 2000. Those two efforts were among only six that pre-date the arrival of non-textile bodysuits in February 2008. Grant Hackett has two left and Kate Ziegler and Leisel Jones one apiece.

Reinforcing criticism that all suits are not truly available to all - nor do they serve the wearers in the same way - along came Ariana Kukors, of the USA, in what I think was a Japanese-made suit never seen before in Europe and took a chain saw to the world record in the semi-final of the 200m medley, reducing it to 2:07.03, from the 2:08.45 in which Stephanie Rice, of Australia, won the Olympic crown last year. Britain's Hannah Miley, third through the to the final behind Rice, set a British record of 2:09.46, which would have been a world record a little over a year ago.

 It all added up to one thing: Olympic hero Michael Phelps, winning the first of what may be six gold medals, as a member of the US 4x100m freestyle quartet, was all but overlooked. Even British teenager Fran Halsall was more talked about: leading off in the heats of the 4x100m freestyle relay, she donned an X-Glide and slid 0.8sec inside her best 100m freestyle time, her 53.02sec British record making her the third-fastest 100m sprinter of all time.

The fastest ever was Britta Steffen, of Germany, on 52.56 since she sped her way inside world-record pace in the new adidas Hydrofoil last month and emerged to say that she had felt like a speedboat and felt that her suit ought to be banned. It will be, in 2010. But before it is, Steffen gave the German 4x100m freestyle quartet the perfect send off, her solo 100m world record of 52.22, matching the time in which Australian Michael Wenden set a world record to win the men’s Olympic crown in 1968.

The Dutch Olympic champions clawed back into contention as the relay progressed and though both teams raced well inside world-record pace, the gold and standard went to Holland by 0.11sec in 3:31.72. Australia, with Libby Trickett racing in an arena X-Glide despite having said that she would stick with the LZR, finished third in 3:33.01. Trickett made her decision to benefit her teammates. She told reporters in the mixed zone that it was a terrible decision to have to make and that she hoped Speedo would understand the dilemma she faced. 

The US team of Amanda Weir, Dara Torres, Christine Magnuson, and Dana Vollmer were locked out of the medals in 3:35.23. But then these are strange times. Britain finished 7th in a national record of 3:36.99, a time that would have defeated the best of East Germany by 5 seconds. The national record books of world swimming are beyond recognition.

The US has often found a way of converting fourth places to a space on the podium. But on day one in Rome, Allison Schmitt, on 4:02.51, and Peter Vanderkaay were locked a place outside the prizes in the 400m free final. 

All is coloured in suits and their effects. But it is heartening to note that swimmers such as Steffen and Biedermann are happy to acknowledge that the suits on the skins should not be in the sport. Good for Steffen in Berlin last month. Good for Biedermann in Rome today when he said that he believed he would be 2 of his 3 seconds of gain on the day slower without the suit and Thorpe's world record would have remained on the books. Good for those German team members who have spoken out in the way they have after having experienced both sides of the coin. In 2008 they could not wear the LZR for contractual reasons and lost out. 

The schism caused cost the DSV and its athletes a significant amount of money. Now the Germans have had a taste of the slippy stuff that supports their homecoming 50m efforts like nothing in the race pool ever has - and they acknowledge what is happening, and are happy to roll back. 

2010 cannot come soon enough.