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When Even Born Racers Get Blown Away

Aug 2, 2009  - Craig Lord

The racer will out. That's the gloss being put on what was, without question, a great week for Michael Phelps, despite suffering a 200 free defeat and loss of world record that owed much to a suit that ought never to have made it into the race pool, just as the suit Phelps wore ought never to have made it to the race pool either.

The 100m butterfly owed something to suits too, at least as far as the time on the scoreboard was concerned. But the spirit of the racer was the thing that made that moment more thrilling than most - probably all - moments over eight days of racing that will go on the record as a warning of how to ruin a sport by being wedded more to the money than the best interests of fair play. 

"I think a competition like this really brings out the best in me,” Phelps said. "It doesn’t matter how much energy I have, it’s all going to go into every race. I think that’s one of the things that I enjoy most is stepping onto the blocks no matter what kind of shape I’m in and racing."

In the US, reports centre on the five gold medals won by Phelps and mull much over the fact that he showed how it was old-fashioned racing that counts and not the suit.

Not what was said, of course, after the 200m freestyle, and there can be no question that 1:42.00 and 3:40.07 relied on the X-Glide and Paul Biedermann was happy to acknowledge it. Even born racers got blown away by suits sometimes this week in Rome and out of the wash came one overriding truth: it became patently obvious that most swimmers and coaches in Rome over the past eight days welcomed the return to cut-back suits and textiles in 2010. They understood the damage being done, the harm being done to their own efforts and achievements.

From Cesar Cielo to Biedermann to Phelps to Steffen to Tancock to Adlington to Van der Burgh and through the ranks, all were heartened by the news. There are still those who wish to put out that the athletes are not happy. Bull. They are. They want to swim. They don't want their efforts tarnished as they have been day after day after day in the abhorrent circus maximus we have witnessed here.

Phelps did not need to prove he was a racer, a competitor, a man capable of winning. He has proved that time and again since he was 15. But the 100m 'fly hammered the message home with diamond precision. 

Mark Schubert, the general manager of United States Swimming, said of Phelps: "An incredible talent, incredible background and probably the greatest mental toughness I’ve ever witnessed."

And it did indeed take mental toughness to perform in the circumstances delivered to swimmers and coaches in Rome. No fewer than 17 countries won gold. Schubert reckoned  that that was "what this meet will be remembered for". 

No it won't. It will be remembered for that other thing that Schubert said it would be remembered for: "the plastic meet". That I can go along with. The meet will be remembered for that 200m free that blew Phelps away. It will be recalled as being a circus that is linked neither to past nor future. It will go down as the final battle of suits wars started and encouraged by Schubert and others who might have known better but were caught out just as FINA was. Schubert and others caught on when the going was about to get much tougher and when the full spectrum of suit demons was ready on the blocks, having emerged from the Pandora's Box opened by Speedo in February 2008.

Good that the coaches put so much effort in and great that FINA finally listened. So much could have been avoided if the focus had been so keen that much earlier in the saga. 

The introduction this year of the two most popular polyurethane suits here, the Jaked01 and arena X-Glide, contributed mightily to the record assault. The X-Glide got the edge on the J01 in the end. 

In a few months from now, none of what came to pass in Rome will matter much. 

But watch for what Liam Tancock spoke about after his 50m backstroke win: "There's going to be guys out there in the next few months really gunning for that world record. They'll want to be the first guys under 24 seconds. There's guys talking about it already." 

Expect to see some sickly stuff before the year is out as some programmes try to get in before the cut. Look especially to short-course and another assault on records. 

The best thing LEN, for example, could do is to say soon that the continent's winter showcase will unfold without the use of poly suits of any kind. 

That is the agreement already reached between Britain, the US and Russia for its meet in Manchester in December.

Meanwhile, the FINA Swimming Technical Committee  will meet before the end of the year and discuss how best to place into context world records established in 2008-09 suits. 

Among favoured option is to highlight the two "assisted" years and draw a line at which the "FINA standard time" reverts to the world record that stood on January 1, 2008. "We could then start at Ground Zero," said a FINA source. And the model could be rolled out across the world easily, simply and without dis-honouring a single athlete or effort.