July 31, 2009
Swimsuit issue is overblownSwimmers still have to be at their best to win
By ALISON KORN, SUN MEDIA
I've always cringed at the saying that behind every great man, there's got to be a great woman. But it is true that underneath every winning swimsuit, there's got to be an amazing athlete.
Technology has taken the gold this week, as the swimsuit brouhaha from the world aquatic championships churns on, with world records falling by the dozen among those wearing the latest full-body, extra-buoyant, high-tech racing suits.
But here's what most elite swimmers would say right now, if they weren't trying so hard to focus on their racing: "People, you've got to remember that a weak swimmer could never win just by wearing one of these suits! Training and talent are still the main thing. What we're doing is hard. And when you overlook our abilities and focus so much on the freaking' suits, it's insulting."
Consider that elite swimmers typically swim 10 kilometres or more a day, plus dryland training. They follow this regimen for years, and usually get just one day off per week. There are no shortcuts to swimming success, just relentless mileage. To harp on the new suits is to diminish the awesome toughness of these athletes.
Isn't it interesting, though, how some sport technologies are acceptable and others are not? In the lead up to the 1998 Olympics, along came the speed skating clap skates that everyone adopted. Canadians transitioned better and quicker than most, and Catriona Le May Doan became the first woman break the 38-second barrier in the 500 metres. Other countries were less impressed.
In the 1980s, a rowing innovation that made boats go faster was banned -- the "sliding rigger" by coach Volker Nolte at the University of Western Ontario.
Nowadays, hockey folks covet the high-end hockey sticks and ponder how much of an illegal curve of the blade they should risk. And the technological advancement in tennis racket strings has led to matches with rackets being swished back and forth like windshield wipers. This year the International Cycling Union announced an equipment crackdown that has manufactures worried. And so on -- every sport has its own equipment standards for safety and fairness.
But winners always are crafty and wily in their legal adherence to the rules. In rowing, we wanted to row in the lightest boat possible, so after racing we emptied our water bottles on to the shoes that are bolted in to the boat, to make extra sure it was heavy enough to pass its weigh-in. I also saw a lightweight rower impulsively chop off her ponytail in order to lose a few grams and get under her maximum allowed 130 pounds.
Swimming also seems to interpret its own rules to its benefit. Last year in Beijing, Michael Phelps won his eight Olympic gold medals while wearing the best racing suit available at the time, and nobody scoffed at his outfit. Rather, we marvelled at his prowess. Now, though, it has become gauche to beat Phelps in this year's suit, as the "unheralded" German Paul Biedermann did this week.
While Biedermann acknowledged his superior suit was worth a couple of seconds of speed, maybe he has also improved since last year, when he placed fifth at the Olympics. Phelps is annoyed that he lost to someone in a better suit. But it was his choice not to wear it. He makes a ton of money to endorse last year's suit.
The problem here is not the suits, but the rules. Last year, high tech suits were considered a cool innovation, and this year they're the scourge of the sport. The international swimming federation looks bad right now for not banning them. But what's worse is how the sport has been degraded by the debate.