CBC Sports

It's all about the suit

Posted: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 | 03:03 PM

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Swimming has a problem.

The new polyurethane suit, ubiquitous at the 13th world aquatic championships in Rome, is leading to a bevy of records, but it doesn’t fit when it comes to the true spirit of competition.

Many sports have been through these choppy waters. Hockey’s advances in padding and carbon-fibre sticks have made the game faster, allowed harder hits and more dangerous shots. Modern tennis racquets and golf clubs have mammoth striking surfaces. But are the players in these games any more skilful?

FINA steps in

That’s why FINA, the international governing body of aquatic sport, is putting an end to the madness and declaring that as of 2010, the plastic flotation device, worn by most of the record breakers, is going out of style.

There are few dissenters.

A sense of embarrassment pervades in Rome. World records are tumbling, 15 at time of writing, mostly thanks to the skin suit.

Many believe FINA allowed its use here because the manufacturer of one model is a major sponsor of the meet. The athletes, some would argue, have been forced to cram themselves into the suits in order to keep pace – uncomfortable as that may be.

“I was blown away that she went that fast,” said the Olympic gold medallist in the 200 IM, Stephanie Rice of Australia. She was talking about previously unheralded Ariana Kukors of the United States who won the gold medal here in Rome and twice smashed Rice’s world record while wearing the new suit. Rice finished second.

Eau de rubber ...

One Canadian team member marvelled at the poolside odour. “It smells like a kiddies birthday party – kind of like a bunch of balloons.”

Indeed, that’s what the swimmers look like when they come out of the water…like a squadron of black balloons. They walk awkwardly and immediately unzip themselves so they can breathe again. They are so uneasy about wearing the suits that many accomplished stars like Libby Trickett of Australia black out the logo or use accreditation cards to cover it up during television interviews in order to protect their regular sponsors.

Most disturbing is the fact that Paul Biedermann of Germany, the man who has ended Michael Phelps domination in the pool by winning the 200-metre freestyle, faced few questions about his spectacular victory and dozens about his chosen swim apparel.

“I’m kind of sad the talk is all about the suit,” Biedermann lamented. “For me it’s all about the swimming and today I am the fastest.”

It all leaves the whiff of something slightly spoiled.

Swimming is supposed to be about the race. Right now it’s more about the suit. That will forever leave an asterisk on these world championships.

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