Michael Phelps and the Issue of the Polyurethane Swim Suit at the World Championship

The Polyurethane swim suits were a source of contention at the World Swimming Championships held last week in Rome. Phelps and many swimmers protested the use of these suits to FINA.

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Eight time Olympic medal winner, Michael Phelps, competed last week in the World Swimming Championships, held in Rome. His rival, Milorad Cavic, had long awaited the opportunity “to even the score” with Phelps, in 100 meters butterfly event, after his attempt to deny Phelps one of his eight Olympic gold medals, failed in Beijing, in 2008.

The meet was not without controversy. Cavic and others competed in a new Italian swim suit called Polyurethane, while Phelps was forced to compete in the older version made by Speedos, his official sponsor.

In a SI.com interview, Cavic tried to downplay the unfair advantage that swimmers wearing this new suit would have over their competitors, such as Phelps. He wanted to portray that even if Phelps was wearing the same suit, like he was, he would still beat Phelps. He suggested that all the swimmers should swim, in their briefs, to prove that the suit had no effect on the outcome.

Cavic had to “eat” his words has Phelps won the event in 49.82 seconds breaking his record time in Beijing, and Cavic’s time of 50.01 he swam in the semi-finals. Cavic finished second behind Phelps in 49.95 seconds, also beating his record in the semi-finals.

He knew Phelps was contracted to Speedos and could not wear any other suit, except one made by Speedos, so he had to wear their 2008 version to compete in this meet in Rome. Phelps and others protested the use of the suits, with Phelps even threatening to boycott all meets until the ban takes effect. It left to be seen if FINA will change the date of the ban, or Phelps will carry out his threat.

The Polyurethane suit is a swimming phenomenon, and each year companies such as Speedos “push the envelope” and design suits which reduce the “drag” that swimmers experience in the pool. In the Kansas City.com, it is reported that in 2008 swimmers wearing this Italian version, broke 100 world records, and 35 were broken in the first six days of the World Championships In an interview said Christine Magnuson said “I don’t think overall the athletes are happy right now”

 FINA, the world governing body over swimming, reportedly placed a ban effective January 1st 2010 on body suits for men except for “jammers”. This is a long suit from waist to knees. For women, they are limited to suits from shoulder to knees. Suits must always be made from either textiles or woven materials.

Over the years swim suits have gone through transformational changes. Each manufacturer competes to produce the suit that gives swimmers the edge in the water. This change dates back to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when suits began to cover ever part of the body except, for the head, feet and hands.

The top of the line suits today are reportedly the LZR racer from Speedos, and the Jaked made in Italy. These suits are designed to keep the swimmer buoyant, and promote endurance. However, “the fix’ is in, and FINA has finally decided to put an end to what is viewed as an unfair competition, and falsely earned swim records. These high tech suits are to swimming, what steroids are to baseball, “sport altering results”

Many of the records set between 2008 and 2009 may never be broken, and it is difficult for FINA to strip those swimmers of these medals or records, because it would be difficult to prove that the suit had an influence on their performance. The ban may have been long in coming, but what is most important, is that it was done. Swimmers will have to once again rely on hard work, talent, endurance and technique to win, as they did in former years and not performance enhancing swim suits.

This FINA ban was announced as a result of a protest made by American sprinter, David Walters, after finishing fifth in 100 meter freestyle. In an interview with the New York Times, Walters said “I feel they sew the suits together with Elmer’s Superglue and a hot iron” Setting the ban five months ahead allows swimmers to still compete wearing these suits. Any records broken will still be recognized. It also allows the manufacturer to sell their existing stock of suits. In responding to the ban, Andrew Peirsol who shattered his own 200 meter backstroke record he earned a month ago, reportedly said that was a once-in-a-lifetime swim for me” He swam the event in a record time of 51.92, improving on his previous time and record by over one second. He also said that “A lot of us are joking that this might be the fastest we will ever go, and we might as well enjoy this year”. He also told The Kansas City.com in an interview “Some of these records might not be broken for a long time”


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  1. Posted June 1, 2010 at 3:20 am

    very nice post.

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