New swim suit making waves, controversy

Tuesday, April 15, 2008 | 10:54 p.m. CDT; updated 10:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Since its debut at the Missouri Grand Prix in February, the new Speedo LZR swimsuit has made nearly as many waves out of the pool as it has in it. With 18 of 19 record-setting, long-course swims – the same pool format of the Olympics – and 17 of 18 record-setting short course swims for the LZR dating back to its inception, Speedo has had to withstand charges of “technological doping” from those in the swimming community and beyond.

FINA, the international governing body for swimming, met with the world’s top swimsuit manufacturers in an emergency meeting Saturday to determine whether the suit and others like it were giving certain athletes an unfair competitive advantage. Though FINA endorsed the suit for a second time and decided to allow other suit makers to copy the design, some in the swimming community have begun to take the matter into their own hands.

The NCAA men’s National Championships, the Italian Olympic Trials and the Canadian Olympic Trials are among meets that have banned the LZR – as well as TYR’s new swimsuit, dubbed the Tracer – from competition.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” said Lauren Lavigna, a freshman MU swimmer who competed at the Canadian trials. “It wasn’t available to everyone, and it’d be unfair if only a few of the top swimmers had it.”

The LZR has not been released to the public as of yet, only to certain elite level swimmers and teams sponsored by Speedo. Originally slated for a summer release, Speedo had been considering releasing the suit as early as this past week to assuage concerns of any competitive disadvantage.

“If the suit is available to everyone, that’s why they make suits like that,” Lavigna said. “If it’s fair for everyone, it’s just like any other suit that came out.”

Speedo claims the LZR reduces the water’s drag against swimmers by up to 10 percent and increases swimmers’ oxygen intake by 5 percent. Other features of the suit include ultrasonic welding, so that the suit has no seams, and inflexible sections in the hips and core, designed to stabilize the swimmer’s body in the water and prevent unnecessary turning and rotation.

MU junior Bryan Difford, who placed fifth in the 200-meter individual medley at the South African Olympic Trials, said the suit has raised concerns with rules regarding suit material, both with buoyancy and water-repellence.

The LZR combines a layer of water-repellent polyurethane, similar to plastic, with the normal suit fabric. The less water the suit absorbs, the lighter it is on the swimmer’s body.

MU junior swimmer Lori Halvorson, who will compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials June 29 to July 6, Difford and Lavigna all said that the suit’s limited release gave an unfair advantage to the few swimmers, many of them national team members for their respective countries, who could get their hands on them.

“It’s like offering the national team legs and arms and not giving them to other people, to a certain extent,” Halvorson said. “It’s an over-exaggeration, but they’ve obviously proven they make people faster.”

Whether the suit should be banned at the Olympics is another point of contention, but any further bans could create gray areas that those in swimming may not be prepared to deal with. Difford pointed out, for instance, that a gap could be created between the official “world record” and the fastest time ever recorded, should the suit now be banned universally.

Difford also raised the issue of sponsorship as far as procuring the suit was concerned.

“People are sponsored by each suit brand,” Difford said. “It’s only fair if each brand has one that can compete with the LZR.”

The TYR Tracer is reportedly similar in design to the Speedo LZR. Arena, the Italian-based swimsuit company, had released a lighter suit and is now releasing an as-yet unapproved prototype suit called the Arena Revolution Mark II, already being hailed as the “Arena Revenge.” But neither suit maker has had to deal with the attention given to the Speedo LZR, which ranked as the number eight search on Yahoo! on April 11.

One important issue for MU swim team coach Brian Hoffer – and by extension, his team who is sponsored by TYR – is the price of the suit. The full-body LZR Racer, now available for pre-order on the Speedo Web site for delivery “on or about July 30, 2008,” is listed at $550. And some top international swimmers replace suits every 10th swim, wrote Farhad Manjoo of Machinist, a technology blog.

“The problem is what they’re going to charge,” Hoffer said. “I don’t have the budget for that. If we don’t have one, we’re going to throw that on the athletes ... I don’t see how a piece of cloth costs that much.”

Difford said it can be tough, because this is an Olympic year, to disentangle the suit’s benefits from the natural progression of athletes.

“Speedo’s pretty clever because of when they release suits – this suit wouldn’t have done as well if it wasn’t in an Olympic year,” he said. “I still think there would’ve been records. This is the time when athletes are most finely tuned, and in an Olympic year, you have to peak perform twice, both at the trials and the Olympics. That makes the suit look that much better because people are swimming faster.”

But because of the number of fast swims in such a short time frame, the suit has raised a few eyebrows, including those of Hoffer.

“What it comes down to is that never in the history of the sport have there been this many records in such a short amount of time,” Hoffer said. “I’m not saying athletes aren’t getting better, because they are, but world records are a big difference. It’s extremely hard to say what athletes are getting better and what athletes are benefiting from the suit. I don’t want to discredit any athlete, but anytime you see something of that magnitude, that’s pretty significant. You at least have to evaluate it pretty hard ... At the elite level, you don’t really need a huge percent to make a difference. A 2 percent difference in times just being faster could be the difference.”

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