Swimsuit ban creates obstacles

From the moment FINA banned record-setting bodysuits on Jan. 1, CBC Sports analyst Byron MacDonald knew the unworldly performances during the last two years would give way to significantly slower times, while leaving athletes and coaches frustrated.

CBC Sports analyst Byron MacDonald says swimmers must deal with new reality

Byron MacDonald could see it coming.

From the moment swimming's governing body FINA banned record-setting bodysuits on Jan. 1, MacDonald knew the unworldly performances during the last two years would give way to significantly slower times, while leaving athletes and coaches frustrated.

"I knew right off the bat that nobody was going to do a best time this year," MacDonald, a former Canadian Olympian and current CBC Sports analyst, told CBCSports.ca.

"That's tough for an athlete, and tough for a coach [to take]. Time is what you're looking for, and of course, all the times are awful compared to what they were a year ago or two years ago. It's been a really challenge for everyone to adapt to the new reality."

The controversial polyurethane bodysuit was developed leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. By the time the year ended, 108 world records had fallen.

What made the neck-to-ankle suits so lethal was that 50 per cent of the material was made of rubber, allowing the swimmer to perform at an unprecedented pace. When the 2009 world aquatics championships took place in Rome, FINA approved suits made of 100 per cent rubber.

The result: 43 more world records were toppled, including four — two individual and two relays — by American icon Michael Phelps.

No records for a long time

Feeling the pressure of a worldwide media scrutiny, FINA announced the banning of the suits for the 2010 season. Today, men are only allowed to wear waist-to-knee swimsuits made of more conventional textile materials. Women's shoulder-to-knee outfits are made of the same material.

"We're going to have a little bit of trouble in the mainstream media coverage, because records sell, and now we won't have records for a long time," said MacDonald.

The former 1972 Olympian believes all this could've been avoided if FINA had simply followed the guidelines that sports like speedskating and alpine skiing adhere to. Whenever new equipment is introduced in those sports, a mandatory 18-month waiting period is needed before the respective governing body gives its approval for competition.

Instead, FINA gave its blessing after only three months, presenting swimmers with some major obstacles.

First, not all athletes had time to practise with the suits — or the ability to refine any problems that might occur. Also, there were questions about whether all swimmers would have access to the suits at major competition — a conundrum that was solved, though some anxiety remained leading up to the events.

"The swimming situation [created] absolute chaos as a result of FINA's incompetence," explained MacDonald, with people were more worried about the suits than the competition. "That was the biggest mistake."

Because there was such a rush to push the manufacturer's new technology onto the market, problems also arose with the suit's durability.

Suits tore easily

"It was so difficult to get these suits on that athletes were bruising themselves, and the suits were, of course, ripping. You heard lots of stories about athletes before they competed — that the damn things ripped after 20 minutes of putting it on.

"You were almost losing your [competition] in the warmup room, because you were too stressed over your suit. If the bodysuits would've been a little bit better constructed, I think I would've been in favour of keeping them."

Taking in the Pan Pacific championship in Irvine, Calif., this week, MacDonald only saw a world record being contested in the women's 200-metre breaststroke, currently held by Canada's Annamay Pierse. Rebecca Soni of the U.S. flirted with a world mark in the race, but couldn't sustain her speed over the final 50 metres and won in two minutes, 20.69 seconds, keeping Pierse's record (2:20.12) safe. The Canadian won bronze in the race.

Fans should expect swimming to return to the era of 15 years ago, the time shortly after a steroid scandal rocked the sports' credibility.

"[I'm] definitely not anticipating a lot of [records] broken over the next five years," he continued. "We'll see a handful certainly, but we won't see them to the number of the [bodysuits]."

Will there be a time FINA ever considers a return to the record-setting armour?

"It's going to be a long time, because everybody has dug their heels in now — the coaches, the administrators — and obviously it would be a serious loss of face if they turned around and endorsed such a product now," MacDonald predicts.

"I think it will come back, but it will be a long time. We're talking a least a decade."