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Memo To FINA From An Expert

Jul 27, 2009

There are good reasons why the cut back in profile of suits is critical to the future of swimming. Here, one of the world's leading experts offers to explain on condition of anonymity.

What is the purpose of legs on a swimsuit?

There can be four reasons:

  • 1. Fashion
  • 2. Modesty
  • 3. Performance enhancement
  • 4. Increased retail value

Fashion is not the domain of FINA. Modesty can be addressed by allowing minimal coverage of the upper thighs. 

(Note: There have been disturbing and politically incorrect statements, that briefs are being avoided around competitive pool decks, due to homophobic connotations. If this is the case, then FINA should defer to a “box” style of swimsuit, as famously worn by Daniel Craig while emerging from the Caribbean Sea in the James Bond film, Casino Royale. It is likely that both heterosexual and homosexual male swimmers would have no objection to Daniel Craig being on their relay with this look.)

Performance enhancement is the issue. The FINA rule as declared  by the FINA Congress in Rome last week, makes it clear that performance enhancement is prohibited. Anything that will or MAY enhance performance is not allowed. 

Textiles that were used in suits before the appearance of the Speedo LZR Racer were claimed to be an improvement over skin. Remember the “Sharkskin” etc. fabrics created for drag reduction, and other fabrics that claimed compression and improved circulation, etc? Suits that were in swimming prior to the “shiny” flotation suits used textiles for these performance improvement purposes. Having legs to the knees on a swimsuit increases coverage of skin. Increased coverage thus provides more opportunity to use the textiles for performance enhancement. According the overwhelming vote of the FINA Congress on last week in Rome, this profile of suit would be illegal.

The final purpose for legs would be increased retail value of the suits. Sadly for the manufacturers, reduced technology and reduced profile means lower price points for suits.

However, FINA, USA Swimming, Australian Swimming, and British Swimming are in the swimming business, not the sporting goods business. 

It is unconscionable that FINA or the swimming federations would pass on the profit concerns of publicly traded corporations to their members by asking them to purchase excess inventory, or to subsidize increase cash flow in order to adjust their product line to make “more jammers”. (“Suit Makers Seek Full Legs To Stand On In 2010” by Craig Lord in Swimnews on July 26, 2009).

The swimming community has already subsidized the FINA’s past lack of leadership on this issue. Swimmers all over the world have purchased $600 swimsuits in successive waves, trying to keep up with the newest  “faster suit” in order to stay competitive while FINA has floundered in trying to solve the equipment issue.

In summary, the purpose of having legs on a swimsuit is to enhance performance. Any increased coverage of skin beyond the purpose of basic modesty points directly at artificial speed or increased profit for manufacturers. This includes closing the back on female suits, which has additional engineering capacities. Open back women’s swim suits should be the only profile allowed as well as minimal thigh cover.

However, FINA has created confusion. They made an assertive statement by overwhelmingly creating a rule last week, disallowing any qualities that might enhance performance, and then immediately and ambiguously describing a profile that breaks that same rule.

FINA has an historic opportunity clear up confusion, and to seize the moment and assert a new era of leadership and stewardship of a great traditional Olympic sport. Should FINA take this opportunity, swimming faster will return to the realm of creative coaches and talented, dedicated swimmers.

Speedo is clearly using the playbook historically used by shoe companies, as described in Sneaker Wars, the 2008 book  Barbara Smit. This strategy, as outlined beautifully in the book, is for the companies to create growth and profit, through relationships and sponsorships. These relationships and sponsorships are used to create influence on sporting bodies that favor the commercial interests of the companies in making decisions about the sport.

Swimming has a choice, and can depart from this direction by taking clear control of the interests of the sport and it’s athletes at this moment.

FINA is at it again. For a brief moment, we had clarity. Anything that will or MAY aid performance was definitively prohibited in swimwear, and almost simultaneously, performance enhancement was allowed back into the suits. Prior to the advent of the LZR and it’s ilk, suitmakers claimed that they had textile that was “better than skin”, which was the reason, for the first time since suits were on the legs for modesty in the days of Johnny Weismuller and Annette Kellerman, legs were added to swimsuits in the 1990’s. The more fabric, the more you covered up inferior performing human skin, with textile that is “better than skin”.

Now, we are being faced with at a return to this old playground for manufacturers, but with statutory endorsement by FINA.

According to the newly clarified rule, “proof” of performance enhancement is not even necessary. Textile on the legs, arms, or anywhere else that is not necessary, is on the body because it MAY aid performance.