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Scientists help Fina out of swimsuit deep water

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Swimming's governing body, Fina, has called on Swiss scientists to conduct tests on controversial high-tech drag-reducing swimsuits.

This content was published on May 29, 2009 - 13:37

Experts at Lausanne's Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) have been helping Fina try to end the controversy over a new generation of swimsuits that are thought to have helped smash most of swimming's records in the past 16 months.

Critics of the hi-tech suits argue their lack of "viscous drag" – around 25 per cent of the total retarding force on a swimmer - and the buoyancy they create amounts to "technological doping".

Since Speedo's LZR Racer suit was made available in February 2008 some 126 world records have been set. Other manufacturers have followed Speedo with their own high-tech suits.

Alarmed by the results, Fina called on the services of EPFL professor Jan-Anders Manson, a composite materials specialist who has worked on the Alinghi America's Cup and Solar Impulse aeroplane projects, and advises international sports federations on technology issues.

Manson and his team tested 348 swimsuit designs for buoyancy and thickness at their Lausanne laboratories last month.

"Now that swimmers have started to cover their bodies [more] it has changed a lots of things," Manson told journalists on Thursday in Lausanne. "Technology cannot be stopped but you can decide what you want."

Manson explained that swimming had constantly witnessed a gain on the clock of 0.75-1 per cent across each four-year Olympic cycle in the past, compared with around two per cent in 2008 and 2009.

"Of course, it is possible for swimming to test for all things, to use lasers and body scanners before and after races - but is that really where swimming wants to go. I think not. But that is not for me to decide," said the professor.

Fina appointed a special commission to sift through the EPFL results and last Wednesday published a list of 202 approved swimsuits for competition in 2009.

Restore credibility

The tests and list follow a meeting in March in Dubai where Fina adopted new rules to try to "restore credibility" to the sport before the world championships in Rome, from July 19 to August 2, and for the rest of the year.

As well as new rules on the thickness and buoyancy of the material, swimsuits must not cover the neck or extend past the shoulders and ankles.

Fina says it wants a level playing field in Rome so that no racer has an advantage based on what they wear, and approved swimsuits should be available to all swimmers.

"We are interfering as the community needs to know that technology needs to be controlled; sport needs to be first - and not the technology," Fina Executive Director Cornel Marculescu said on Thursday.

But 2009 was an interim period before Fina created tougher suit regulations for next year, he added.

"We can't ban all high-tech suits just like that, as the industry and racers would be affected too much," he told journalists. "This is a transitional period. We will do the right thing for swimming. Rome will be part of the process, but if the suits are still being written about in January next year as they are now, then you can shoot us."

"We need to control this technology," Marculescu said. "We need to do it by scientific proof. There is no scientific evidence today to say one swimsuit is better than another swimsuit."

Permeability tests

At the heart of the controversy are new suits totally covered with polyurethane to aid buoyancy. The old suits only had polyurethane plates.

Fina rejected ten suits for not passing the tests of buoyancy and/or thickness. It said 136 other swimsuits needed to be modified to meet the requirement that "swimsuit material shall not be constructed to include elements/systems which create air/water trapping effects during use". Firms have 30 days to resubmit modified designs.

This second group included the Arena X-Glide worn by Olympic Champion Alain Bernard when breaking the 100 metres men's freestyle world record last month. It also contained the Jaked 01 model worn by Frederick Bousquet when he broke the 50m freestyle world record in April.

There was speculation on Thursday that both models could be approved without making any kind of modifications for air trapping, as Fina does not have the means to test the phenomenon when a swimmer wears it.

Manson's team will conduct more detailed permeability tests on all swimsuits later this year so that Fina can settle on an approved list for 2010 onward. The swimming body has already ruled that next year's suits can have no more than 50 per cent non-permeable material to be legal.

"Fully permeable suits is the right direction to go," said the EPFL professor.

Simon Bradley in Lausanne, swissinfo.ch

Swimsuit controversy

High-tech swimsuits were introduced in 2000. In 2005 the armoured suit entered the pool and a rule had to be introduced to force manufacturers to create costumes with a flat surface and suits that followed the body contour.

The technology race started to heat up when the Speedo LZR suit arrived in February 2008. At the Olympics in Beijing, LZR swimmers, most notably American Michael Phelps, won 94 per cent of the golds on offer and broke 23 of the 25 records set there.

The combined effects of the LZR both compressing the body and trapping air for buoyancy led to many competitors who used the LZR wearing two or more suits for an increased effect. This led to some claiming that the LZR was in effect "technological doping".

Following the December 2008 European Short Course Championships in Croatia, where 17 world records fell, it was felt there was a need to modify the rules surrounding swimsuits. Since February 2008 racers competing in the high-tech suits have set 126 new records.

New polyurethane models, such as the Jaked suits and Arena's X-Glide, were introduced to compete with the LZR.

At their meeting in Dubai in March 2009, Fina stipulated that swimsuits should not cover the neck, must not extend past the shoulders and ankles, and also limited the suits' thickness and buoyancy. On May 20 it drew up a list of 220 approved suits for 2009. Fina plans to introduce tougher suit regulations in 2010.

A full suit costs around $300–$600, limiting their use to highly competitive and professional sportspeople. However, in recent years technological advances have meant that basic high-technology swimwear can be purchased for approximately $100.

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