Thursday, February 19, 2009
If you watched any of this year's Olympic swimming, you saw tons of world and Olypmic records fall and you saw almost everyone in the newest technical swim suits -- mostly the one made by Speedo. Once the Olympics were over, you probably promptly forgot (or stopped caring) about the supersuits, or swimming in general.
Since the Olympics, a bunch of other manufacturers have developed their own suits that rival the one from Speedo. Some are from established players like TYR, but most are from triathlon wetsuit manufacturers. To be clear for the uninformed, wetsuits are illegal in most swimming events as they provide buoyancy (they are legal in most triathlons, supposedly for the insulation effect, but in practice, it's for the life-preserver effect -- some triathlons are not wetsuit-legal though, and that's where this new suit comes in).
Anyway, the "swimskins" made by the wetsuit companies are perfectly legal under the current world swimming rulebook. They're not technically wetsuits -- while they are made from neoprene, they aren't made with foamed neoprene (the material that makes wetsuits buoyant).
Where there were previously only a handful of manufacturers making technical swimsuits, the industry is poised to see a huge wave of new players, all capitalizing on the "non-wetsuit wetsuit design." Beyond the question of whether or any of these swimskins do actually create flotation, one of the problems is that these companies will all be using the same process and materials, making it virtually impossible for meet officials to be able to distinguish between an "approved, legal" suit and one that isn't. While these suits aren't buoyant as far as FINA (the sport's governing body) is concerned, if every suit basically looks the same, but is created by a different manufacturer, what's to stop someone from using a swimskin that actually does have foamed neoprene? It'd be really hard to tell.
This week (tomorrow, I think), FINA is meeting to decide the legality of not only the neoprene suits, but also Speedo's and TYR's latest suit.
For anyone that cares, my non-technical opinion is that the materials in an approved suit need to be more tightly regulated. I'm all for innovation and fewer barriers to entry within the industry, but these suits are going too far, or more specifically, going too far in a bad direction. Speedo, TYR and Nike all have other technical suits that definitely improve speed compared to a standard lycra suit, but: 1)they don't help you float, 2)they're not ridiculously expensive.
I've seen (and touched, but not worn) Blue Seventy's swimskin (the one worn by most of the Olympic open water swimmers, as well as that dude swimming breastroke in that triathlon this past summer) and Rocket Science Sports' swimskin. Interestingly, I wouldn't have really thought the Blue Seventy was based on wetsuit technology if someone hadn't told me. It just seemed like a super nice, super slick racing suit. The RSS one just seemed like a thin wetsuit. I suspect that some of the suits will be deemed legal, while others won't.
I can illustrate my biggest problem with all these suits with a quick story from this past weekend. Hannah and I were in Austin and we stopped in one of the better tri shops in town. I asked to see the RSS swimskin and the woman in the store said they only had one left, because all the high school kids had just bought them out for an upcoming meet. These are high school kids dropping $250+ on a swim suit. Suddenly, grassroots swimming has become this huge arms race. If I was a high school swimmer and all my competition had one of these suits, you can bet I'd get one if I wanted to be competitive.
I'm kind of indifferent about elite swimming and the suits. The fastest swimmers are winning anyway; they're just setting more records. But for high school and younger swimmers, there has to be a limit (some of these suits are only usable for a handful of meets at most -- the Speedo LZR is only good for about seven swims, according to the shop employee I talked to at a reputable swim shop -- I can't imagine what I'd do if my 14 year old said the only way he'd be able to compete was with a $400 body suit that we'd have to replace after one or two meets).
Masters swimming has already embraced the swimskins, as has the triathlon world. If they end up banned, it will be interesting to see what happens to the rules in these two organizations -- they both use FINA rules as a guideline, but I'm curious if they won't stray on this one -- there's a lot of money to be made selling these suits.
If you want to learn more, check out the series of articles at SwimNews.com (the first article is here).
I appreciate that was long-winded. But aren't you glad I didn't talk about running shoes?