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The Best And Worst That Could Have Happened

Jul 28, 2009  - Craig Lord

It was the best and worst thing that could have happened. Nothing, but nothing could better reinforce the message that the suits that SwimNews has campaigned to get rid of for the past year, do indeed need to go than an evening of dramatic twists and turns at the heart of which was the drubbing of Michael Phelps and his LZR by Paul Biedermann and his X-Glide.

We predicted a circus, a shampionships - and we got one. The freak show arrived on the day that day that FINA let us know what's coming in 2010: read the statement in full.

The coach to the greatest Olympian of all time has a message for FINA: the suits are immensely significant, get rid of them asap, and only when you do will the greatest asset in world waters get back in touch. And meantime, get a pair of scissors and start snipping: all 151 world records set since February 2008 should be wiped from the record, including 10 of Michael's.

There are some in FINA still who believe that the suits are not all that significant. Cornel Marculescu, the exec director, still speaks of the workload of swimmers and advances in X, Y and Z. All of which misses the point, avoids the dark heart of what SwimNews has been getting at for so long. Hark the words of Bob Bowman:

"We've lost the history of the sport. Does a 10-year-old boy in Baltimore want to break Paul Biedermann's record? Is that going to make him join swimming?

"It took me five years to get Michael from 1:46 to 1:42 and this guy has done it in 11 months. That's an amazing training performance. I'd like to know how to do that.

"I would be perfectly happy if we adjust all the records starting with the LZR. If we took them all out and went back to 2007. Even those in Beijing. We can have them in a separate list. These were done in polyurethane suits and then these are done in textile suits. Then we can start over in January and make the sport about swimming."

Here's how Biedermann got there in 11 months tonight: some splits and stats from the race.

Bowman continued: "I just said to Doug Frost [Thorpe's mentor], the two of us were erased in three days. It took no time, what took us 12 years together (to build). It makes me wonder why I still want to keep doing this. Why would I take another 13-year-old and bring him through, because once he gets there, there's is nothing to shoot for. Once the suits are taken out we would never get there (to Biedermann's time).

"There should be separate lists for polyurethane and textile suits, so we can start over in January. I think these records need to be kept apart."

Since February 2008, the Speedo LZR has helped some significantly. Some gained more, some less, which lies at the heart of the problem with all these suits, the latest generation of which are truly ugly, an abomination in the race pool and an affront to the hard work of coaches and swimmers. Wherever the LZR's lifeline lives along the spectrum of artificial assistance, it could not save Phelps, the greatest Olympian of all-time, from the drubbing of his life, one that was followed by a call from the American's distraught coach, for all 151 world records set since February 2008 to be expunged.


Phelps, having lost his world title and record to Germany's in-the-form-of-his-life Paul Biederman, on 1:42.00, a full 4sec quicker than his previous best, said that he would take his coaches advice not to race in international waters again until swimming bosses enforced a ban on all performance-enhancing suits, including his own.

Biedermann was triple European junior champion in 2004, over 200, 400 and 800m freestyle in Lisbon in 2004 and has long been a talent waiting to pounce. But his gains in Rome have been nothing short of sensational, jaw-dropping in fact. He left Olympic champion Phelps 1.22sec back and the American's world record was blown away by 0.96sec. Bowman said that “the suit was worth 1.5sec” to the German. The total drop: 4sec. To 1:42 flat. That takes a hell of a lot of training. 

"I'd like to know how to do that," Bowman was reported as saying to reporters in the mixed zone, sadly while I was away filing copy on Gemma Spofforth's victory in the 100m back. "I laughed when I read Craig Lord’s stuff on suit enhancement. I didn't believe it. I believe it now."

Biedermann, 23 on August 7, took charge of the race from the outset and went from strength to strength. Phelps had not been beaten over 200m since taking bronze behind Thorpe and Pieter Van den Hoogenband in Athens 2004. Then he was chasing down the favourites as he headed for hom. The same was true in the 100m 'fly final at world titles in Montreal 2005, when he chased down Ian Crocker but could not get there.

This time, there was no chasing, there was no overhauling, only the dawning realisation that he could not cope with a man and his suit, a man in a different suit a year ago in Beijing who took fifth place 3sec back. "It just wasn’t working; nothing I was trying to do was  working," said Phelps.

Biedermann said: "The only thing I actually beat him in was the swimming, and I think I  handled it really well. I was there when he  (Phelps) won his eighth gold in Beijing and it was really great just to live that moment ... and now I am faster than him." Faster than him in a suit. The future is undecided. 

Biedermann revealed that teammate Britta Steffen had sidled up to say "I believe in you" before the race. That helped him to believe in himself. Phelps conceded that "maybe Michael Phelps was not in the best shape like he was in Beijing and maybe if he was in better shape he could beat me, but I’m looking forward to the next race".

Given all that has happened in Phelps's life and the amazing time on the board a year after Beijing, despite the deficit to the champion ahead of him, the American said: "Deep down inside I can’t be disappointed and mad, I just can’t. Paul swam a great race, and this result shows that to  swim long course you have to be in shape. I can’t dream it. I wish I could, but I have to get back into physical shape."

Over in Germany, the headlines scream "I'm also a clean man". Biedermann, coached by Frank Embacher in Halle, now finds himself needing to defend himself at every turn. There is no escaping the doping question in Germany, a nation with an eastern history that will not go away. Pity Biedermann, for if he is clean - and he is a man who is regularly tested and takes part in a blood-testing programme too - then his world-champion status has, perversely, made him a victim too.

Bowman called on FINA not to delay any further in implementing chances to the swimsuit rules. "They can expect Michael not to swim until then, because I am done with this,'' he said. "They have to implement this immediately. This is a shambles. They better do something or they are going to lose the guy that fills all these seats. We have lost the history of the sport.

"That would be my recommendation for him not to swim internationally. This mess needs to be stopped right now. This can't go on any further."

Phelps joked about a return to "banana-hammocks", a luridly descriptive take on briefs that had folk rolling about. The swimmers will do as Bob asks when it comes to his post-Rome moves: "Bob chooses the meets I swim in, that's his decision." Asked if he looked forward to the rematch with Biedermann, Phelps said: "It'll be fun when swimming gets back to swimming."

In the semis of the 200m 'fly later in the session, Phelps qualified behind Takeshi Matsuda (JPN), 1:53.35 to 1:53.48, with Pawel Korseniowski (POL), on 1:53.75.

Meantime, Biedermann received a message from Thorpe after the 400m, when he felled the world record with a 3:40.07: "It was not only the suit, it was you." The German was encouraged by the note from the Australian.

"The suits make a difference," Biedermann said. "Last year, it was Speedo. This year, it's Arena. I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without these suits. I hope next year. I hope it's really soon."

Don't we all.