The Bodysuit Debate Drags On

By Phillip Whitten

AUSTIN, Texas. March 28. IT was the loudest buzz before the Olympic Games in Sydney last September. The new bodysuits, by swimsuit manufacturers such as Speedo and adidas, would allow swimmers to reduce drag, making them faster. World records would tumble, the manufacturers predicted.

Purists were outraged, pointing out that the rules of swimming's international governing body, FINA, expressly prohibit the use of flotation or other performance-enhancing devices.

The records did, indeed, tumble. But the controversy may have been much ado about nothing, a tempest in a 50-meter teapot. Two studies, by scientists in the U.S. and Holland indicate the new-fangled suits may not have had much to do with the orgy of record-breaking in Sydney.

In the first study, published in Swimming Technique, Dr. Joel Stager, Director of the Indiana Human Performance Laboratory, and his colleagues analyzed the times of the swimming finalists at all the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials between 1968 and 1996 to predict the times for the 2000 Trials in Indianapolis. "Our assumption was that if no cataclysmic change occurs, we could predict the winning times with considerable accuracy," Stager said.

In 13 events for both men and women, his predictions were off by less than one percent. "Our studies showed an error of 0.23 percent for women and 0.37 percent for men, which is extremely accurate and validates our procedures," he said. Stager said his findings show that using the new, highly publicized bodysuits had virtually no effect on performance for elite American swimmers.

A second study, by Dr. Huub Toussaint and his colleagues at the Faculty of Human Movement Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam support’s Stager’s conclusion. "There is no significant difference in drag between swimmers wearing the Speedo ‘Fastskin’ bodysuit and those wearing a conventional swim suit," said Toussaint. The study will appear in the next issue of the British journal, Sport Biomechanics.

In the experiment, conducted at the indoor pool Sportfondsenbad Amersfoort, 13 international-caliber Dutch swimmers were asked to swim at top speed wearing the Fastskin and conventional swimwear. The experimenters measured the active drag created by the swimmers wearing first one suit, then the other. The result: There was no statistically significant difference.

Speedo has claimed that the Fastskin will reduce the drag encountered during swimming, and estimated the effect to be in the order of 7.5%. "The results of the present test do not support the claims of Speedo," Toussaint said.

But the issue is far from settled. An informal study by Paul Bergen, coach of the Tualatin Hills Swim Club in Beaverton, Oregon, and the coach of Dutch world record-holder Inge De Bruijn, supports Speedo’s claims that the suit improves speed—at least in the freestyle and butterfly.

Swimmers swam 25 meter trials using the Fastskin suit and a conventional suit. The result: when using the bodysuit, swimmers were about half a second faster per 25 meters: a huge difference. But critics point out that when the swimmers were performing the trials using conventional suits, their bodies were not shaved as they would be in top-flight competition.

Australian coaching legend Forbes Carlile acknowledges that the manufacturers’ claims that the new suits reduce drag remain unsubstantiated. But he raises the issue of flotation, which is clearly prohibited in the rules of swimming’s international governing body, FINA.

Carlile asks: "Do we know if ‘Fastskin’(Speedo)or
‘teflon impregnated lycra’ (adidas) or 'Powerskin' (Arena) or any of the of the other high-tech fabrics and coatings give any flotation effect beyond that of standard nylon or lycra? If a significant flotation effect with various fabrics and coatings can be shown, is it likely that this effect will enhance performance?"

Thus far, no scientific studies have been performed that address those questions, though FINA is organizing a meeting in Barcelona next week to discuss "scientific progress" in swimming. Representatives of all the world’s major swimwear manufacturers have been invited.

Carlile also points out that FINA has violated its own rules by failing to test the new materials and by announcing the criteria by which such materials might be judged.

Meanwhile, many swimmers seem to believe the new suits help them swim faster, whether due to reduced drag or increased flotation. Surveys at recent major meets in the U.S. and Australia indicate that, except for breaststroke, about 70% of swimmers are using some form of the body suit. Interestingly, almost none are using the full body suit, which covers the arms as well as the legs. In a typical comment, the U.S.A.’s Misty Hyman, Olympic gold medalist in the 200 meter butterfly, says: "I feel the sleeves restrict my movement."
In contrast, almost all breaststrokers continue to use conventional suits.

Today, one year after Speedo first introduced its "Fastskin" suit to the market, the hi-tech bodysuits remain controversial. With FINA unwilling to lay down specific rules regarding technological innovation in the sport of swimming, it is likely that such controversies will fester for the indefinite future .

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