“Technological Doping” with Supersuits

Super suits are breaking records at the 13th FINA World Championships in Rome – 29 world records have fallen in the first five days of competition.

These controversial suits are faster and more high-tech than those used in the past. Made of polyurethane, the full-body suits work to trap air and allow for increased buoyancy. By compressing muscles, the suits also help to reduce the workload for swimmers, thus reducing fatigue and allowing for improved stamina and a stronger finish at the end of a race.

Michael Phelps, for one, is not pleased with the ‘technological doping’ results of the past few days. He has stated that he plans to withdraw from international meets until “swimming gets back to swimming”. There are many other critics who agree.

D’arcey Musselman, SportMed Manager of Performance and international athlete and coach says that swimming “should go back to basics. Sport needs to evolve, but this is not showcasing true swimming skills, but showcasing the swimsuits”. She adds that the suits take away from what swimming is all about – “it is a floatation device – no skills and technique are being shown”.

Previous suits such as the Speedo LZR helped to produce 108 world records in 2008. Speedo worked with FINA (international governing body for swimming) to ensure that their suit did not float or provide more assistance than it should to swimmers. Now Arena, Adidas and Jaked have upped the bar with reducing drag and stabilizing muscles to a distinct advantage.

FINA has now agreed to a ban limiting men’s suits from waist to knee, and women’s suits from shoulder to knee. The FINA policy will be implemented from Jan 1, 2010, and will address the fabric material, buoyancy and permeability, as well as suit fasteners, modifications and limit the number of suits worn to only one at a time – apparently some athletes in Beijing wore two suits at once – imagine!!

Swimming Canada chief executive officer Pierre Lafontaine is pleased that FINA is making a stand. “Make it a simple, very clear rule and let’s go from there.”

Young swimmers are also trying to keep up with the new technology. Competitors as young as 10 are wearing these suits at swim meets and blowing away the competition. Parents and coaches alike are resisting the move – at $600 a suit, it is an expensive outlay for something that can only be worn a couple of times before the material stretches and the compression effect is reduced. Some athletes are sharing the suits between them, to reduce cost and remain in the running for a podium position.

Swim Ontario has made a stand – they have banned use of all super suits for racers under 14, starting in September. The rest of Canada would do well to follow in their footsteps – otherwise national competition standards become inconsistent and difficult to monitor.

Musselman says that swimmers who use these suits, especially at the developmental stages, are not learning the proper technique and body position, because the swimsuit compensates in these areas.

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