Suits you sir: Lord wins prestigious award

A year-long investigation into the impact of new swimsuits by veteran Times correspondent Craig Lord has resulted in the world governing body bringing in strict new rules and winning the writer the gratitude of the respected the American Swimming Coaches Association.

Long-time SJA member Lord has been named as the recipient of the ASCA’s Media Award for his campaigning coverage of the “fast suits” issue that in 2008 transformed swimming from a technique-based sport to an equipment-based sport, when world records tumbled in almost every world-class event and the all-time world rankings were transformed beyond recognition.

Leading the plaudits to Lord was the leading Australian swim coach, Forbes Carlile, who said, “Congratulations and thank you for the tireless work you have put in, to ensure that after January 1, 2010, if the promises we hear from the hierarchy of swimming are fulfilled, we will see swimming cleansed completely of performance-aiding swim suits.”

On the eve of the world short-course championships in Manchester in April last year, Lord, the swimming correspondent for The Times and Sunday Times, was the first to see the storm approaching when he wrote this:

“Swimming has reached a watershed. Time to decide which way to go as technological advance takes hold of time and rattles it like a sapling in a sandstorm. Let’s be clear, all suit makers have new suits out for Olympic year, but just one has a product on its swimmers that has surfed 18 times into uncharted waters since February 16.”

In the face of a £10 billion-a-year swimsuit industry, which often provides major sponsorship support to many national swim federations, it took FINA, the international swimming federation, almost a year to catch up, by which time 108 world records had fallen in the race pool. Such was the transformation of the world ranking lists that, what was the men’s 50 metres freestyle world record on February 1, 2008 (21.64sec to quadruple Olympic champion Alex Popov of Russia), was outside the best 20 performances ever a little over a year later.

In April, Fred Bousuet, of France (pictured right), almost half a second slower than Popov’s best in 2007 is now 0.7sec faster, with 20.94, set in a suit (Jaked01) that within weeks was banned by FINA. His record has yet to be ratified but may well be because in June 2008, FINA approved the Jaked01 long before introducing independent suit tests.

Lord’s analysis files for from the Olympic Games in Beijing proved beyond doubt that a seismic shift in the nature of the sport was taking place. In October, ran “Suit Week” in five parts.

The links for the articles in the series are here:

Those files were studied by the legal team at FINA. The protests of coaches in Rijeka at the European short-course championships echoed similar feelings in the United States and Ausrtralia, the superpowers of the pool and both Speedo nations, put further pressure on the international federation.

In November 2008, Lord broke the news that FINA was about to change its mind. The international federation announced that a Think Tank would be held in February. It met coaches and suit makers at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, and in March launched the Dubai Charter and independent testing of suits. By May 19, a list of approved suits cut out 136 models that failed lenient tests for buoyancy.

Three of the suits rejected by FINA, the Jaked01, the Arena X-Glide and the Descente Aquaforce, were worn in March and April by swimmers on the way to nine world records that may never be ratified.

From January 1, 2010, it is expected that swimming will return to the use of textile-only suits, with a ban on the full bodysuit (arms, as worn by Ian Thorpe in Sydney 2000, have already been banned) to follow sometime next year as FINA imposes limits of the amount of skin that may be covered by material.

The amount of skin covered is critical to the darkest aspect of the fast-suits debate. So great was the potential impact that American designers even drafted in NASA to assist with some space-age technology as it was established that the smart fabrics even have the ability to stimulate the central nervous system and influence heart rate, lung and other vital functions, a subject raised by Lord in this Sunday Times article.

As one suit maker prepares to sue FINA for compensation running to $10,000 a day, the key casualty of the suits debacle is the president of FINA, Mustapha Larfaoui, who last week let it be known that he has stepped down from the race to retain the presidency of the international federation and in doing so will lose his place at the IOC table.

Asked by for his views on how top swimmers, including Britain’s double Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington, had benefited from wearing the go-faster hi-tech suits, Lord said, “I have no doubt that the likes of Michael Phelps and Adlington would have won their events in Beijing.

“But timewise we may never know how much the LZR suits helped. Suffice it to say that Phelps going more than 1sec faster than Ian Thorpe ever did over 200 metres freestyle and more than 3sec faster than he had himself swum a year earlier, from 4:06 to 4:03 in the 400m medley, reflects the suit.

“Adlington, in a different suit, had swum 8:18. At the Beijing Games, in the suit, she swam 8:14.

“I think the suit contributes a little over longer distances but is far more effective in 50 and 100m races. I think the 4min times over 400m that Joanne Jackson and Adlington did this year reflect the suit in part.

“But both will be forces to reckoned with in new suits approved for use from January 1,” Lord said.

“The issue is less to do with some of those who will be in line for big prizes come what may. The deeper problem is better observed among those incapable of making a semi-final at world championships two years ago or the Olympic Games less than a year ago, but who are now on the cusp of world-record pace.

“The problem lies in the youth ranks of a sport, both in terms of the financial costs to parents and the cost to a sport that is having a hard time weeding out genuine talent from teenagers who are helped by a suit, without which they would be average.”

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