FINA’s Defining Moment in History and How The World of Competitive Swimming Changed

By Brent Rutemiller

PHOENIX, Arizona, April 28. THE current firestorm over competition swimsuits can be traced back to one key moment in FINA history: The redefining of fabric by FINA rule GR 5.5(b) Material in early 2008.

Let's revisit the excerpts of that moment as first reported in June '08 issue of Swimming World Magazine: …The fabrics used [for the manufacturing of competitive swimsuits] shall be regular and shall not form outstanding shapes or structures, such as scales. No outside application shall be added on the fabrics (use of different fabrics, see below). For the avoidance of doubt, impregnation is not subject to limitation and paint can be used for motives in regular and usual thickness. It is further clarified that: the application of fabrics put on top of each other as a result of a manufacturing/application process to combine the fabrics is permitted provided that this remains in the usual thickness and does not create outstanding shape(s) or structure(s)."

What is very interesting is that the above definition of material was revised on February 27, 2008, five weeks AFTER TYR debuted the Tracer Rise and two weeks AFTER Speedo's official launch of the LZR Racer swimsuit. Both TYR and Speedo were within their rights to race their swimwear since both got official approval from FINA earlier.

Both TYR and Speedo use a key ingredient (polyurethane) in their manufacturing process which now conforms to FINA's "revised" definition of fabrics.

The change in definition at the time caught many manufacturers by surprise.

Take this extract from a letter sent from Diana Swimwear to FINA seeking clarity before the revision: "It is evident that some costumes of our competitors avail plastic film 'additioned' on the normal fabric. We wonder why it has been authorized the use of plastic material on the normal fabric, in our opinion in violation of the forwarded guidelines? … in the past, you refused us the use of similar materials and of same thickness of those currently approved to our competitors. FINA has the right to change its guideline on the matter but, if this comes, it should have to be known by everyone because all the companies have same rights and duties towards the rules. … "

Christiano Portas, head of Arena was quoted in as saying, "We are competitors as much as the swimmers are competitors, and the best will win. This is a stimulation to improve, but the rules must be clear. Now it's clear to everybody, but it's late. We've invested money. Knowing this before would have been a lot of help for everyone."

She concluded by saying, "FINA apologized that their rules were not very well worded. The rules were written in a wishy-washy way. A new era in the sport kicks off today. We can fight for ethics but we stood alone when it came to everyone saying that the word 'fabric' in the rules was just a generic term. Now we explore many other things."

Lost in this swimsuit controversy are the athletes' performances. True athletes, who have been fighting accusations of drugs whenever they turn in a record breaking performance, are now being accused of a great performance only because of new swimsuit technology. True athleticism takes the back seat again.

But scary is the talk that the suits are the new masking agent for drugs. Wherein the past, a 2% improvement was a red flag for doping, now it can be reasonably argued that it was simply the suit.

Never has there been so much turbulence in the swimming community between media, governing bodies, athletes, coaches, agents, manufacturers, purists and liberals. But it will not stop there, as the issue will soon percolate down to the developmental level and eventually family economics.

The cost for one suit can range between 350 to 500 US dollars. This amount is for a suit that may only last for one championship season.

We cannot deny the fact that young swimmers will want to compete in the fastest suits, especially when their child is competing against his or her peers in the big championship meet at the end of the season.

For a parent of two, the cost to outfit racing suits alone could easily jump to $2,000 per year. The sport already claims a huge disparity in racial diversity, to add an economic hurdle to membership may dissuade huge numbers from entering the sport.

And on a collegiate level, the economic pressure for already financially strapped athletic departments to cough up huge dollars to outfit entire swim teams could be the death blow to Men's NCAA swimming.

A few questions remain today:
Who at FINA was responsible for redefining FINA rule GR 5.5(b) Material?

Were there outside influences by manufacturers to redefine the rule?
Should the FINA person(s) responsible for the redefinition be held accountable?

Are we better or worse off as a sport one year later?

The full version of this article first appeared in the June 2008 issue of Swimming World Magazine in Brent Rutemiller's monthly column, 'A Voice For The Sport'.

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