Guest blogs have unfortunately taken a back seat recently as the ‘ask a sports engineer’ project has got underway. I’ve had this article sitting in my inbox for a while and I thought it has particular relevance with the Olympic swimming underway and the controversy currently surrounding some of the incredible results we’re seeing in London. Can the new swimsuits, created under stricter regulation compete with the previous era of advanced polyurethane full body suits? We have predicted ourselves that it may be many years before some of the world records set during 2008/2009 are broken. Does what we are currently seeing in the Olympic pool suggest otherwise? Enjoy the article.
When technical swimsuits were banned by the World Swimming Federation, FINA, effective after December 31st, 2009, I was lucky enough to get one of them for free after the last big event of 2009, European Short Course in Istanbul. Swimmers were literally handing out their swimsuits to other swimmers who had one more event to swim back home before the year ended. Five world records broken in Istanbul, which is more than the amount of world records broken since then. Still, it was not as many as people witnessed in World Aquatics Championship in Rome 2009. Forty-three world records were broken in the infamous “Plastic Games” where polyurethane swimsuits were worn by the swimmers, even though they were still waiting approval by FINA. Michael Phelps was one of the swimmers to boycott the polyurethane swimsuits by competing with a Speedo legskin swimsuit, where on the other hand Paul Biedermann from Germany broke Thorpe’s 7 year old 400m Freestyle record and destroyed Phelps in 200m Freestyle while breaking his record in the same event, with the help of one of the most popular suits of the time, Arena XGlide. He later said “Yes (the suit) makes me faster but what could I do? FINA allowed it… I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without the suit.”[link] To help making his wish come true, FINA banned polyurethane swimsuits. Unfortunately Biedermann hasn’t managed to repeat the level of performance he displayed in Rome 2009. With the new FINA rules in place, manufacturers such as Arena and Speedo have responded with new suits which fit in with current regulation, will the new suits be enough to help swimmers take the next step after Rome 2009?
Why The Rules Were Changed
According to the test [Figure.1] conducted by Sports Medicine Research Center (CIMS) in Paris by plotting the best times of the best 10 swimmers for 4 random events, we can see a clear time drop in 2009 with the arrival of plolyuretahne swimsuits. [link]
Figure.1 Four swimming events. (A) Men 200m Breast. (B) Men 50m Freestyle (C) Women 100m Back (D) Women 1500m Freestyle.
FINA’s New Rules
FINA wanted to prevent the superhuman advantage that the suits were delivering. After FINA Bureau held a meeting with the Swimsuit Manufacturers on February 20, 2009 they decided to come up with new regulations for the approved swimwear.
Design: The swimsuit shall not cover the neck and shall not extend past the shoulders nor past the ankles.
Material: When used, the material shall follow the body shape; the application of different materials shall not create air trapping effects.
Thickness: The material used shall have a maximum thickness of 1mm
Buoyancy: The swimsuit shall not have a buoyancy effect of more than 1 Newton.
Permeability: Materials used must have at any point a permeability value of more than 80 l/m2/second. (Equipment tolerance value +/- 5%). The non-permeable material can only be used for a maximum 50% of the total surface of the swimsuit for fully body models. For these models, the maximum surface of non-permeable material to be used on the upper and lower part of the swimsuit shall be respectively 25% on each part. Non-permeable material shall be distinguishable. Women swimsuit shall not cover the neck or extend past the shoulders, nor shall extend below the knee.
Material: Consisting of natural and/or synthetic, individual and non consolidated yarns used to constitute a fabric by weaving, knitting, and/or braiding. The material shall be regular and flat. Layered materials must be completely attached/bound/stuck together.
Thickness: The material used shall have a maximum thickness of 0.8mm. (Equipment tolerance value +/- 0.1mm)
Buoyancy: The swimsuit shall not have a buoyancy effect above 0.5 Newton (Equipment tolerance value +/- 0.1 Newton)
For starters, FINA changed the allowed swimsuit size almost completely. Swimsuits cover a lot less of the body, resulting in more drag for all swimmers regardless of sex. FINA decreased the permitted thickness which made the suits more permeable and less buoyant. Even a standard was set for the permeability value to keep the hydrophobic fabric at a limited percentage. Not just water, but also hair (which is a big issue for male swimmers) goes through the permeable fabric thus makes it harder to glide in water. Needless to say polyurethane was no longer a choice in the fabric but only natural or synthetic yarn, which means no more “Plastic Games”.
With the new rules manufacturers are limited in the technological advantage they are able to provide (which is arguably the point of the regulation). Male suits, now unable to extend below the knee or above the navel are limited in the drag reduction they can provide. Instead manufacturers (such as Arena) are focusing on things like muscle compression and energy storage (in the form of elastic fibres in the suit) and others (like Speedo) are recognising that there may be other areas where gains can be made. Speedo now adopt advanced scanning technologies in design and manufacture to achieve high levels of precision and fit, have new goggles which claim to reduce drag and improve vision. What is clear from the response of the manufacturers is typical in any regulated sport. If you choke off one avenue of innovation manufacturers and researchers will search for alternative ways to provide a benefit, even to the extent of working with sports psychologists to use appropriate colours in the goggle’s lens design.
What Has Changed
Despite all the developments in the new swimsuits, swimmers never were able to reach to the momentum they had in 2009. Looking at the best times for 100m Freestyle Women, from 1990 till 2011, we see how the peak was reached in 2009.  This suggests that Speedo and Arena are still far from creating the “artificial enhancement” effect seen with full body polyurethane swimsuits.
(CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VIEW)
THE RULES HAVE BEEN EFFECTIVE (FOR NOW) IN CURBING SOME OF THE LARGE TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANTAGES WHICH THE FULL BODY POLYURETHANE SWIMSUITS GRANTED.
In the last couple of years, swimsuits made so much publicity that swimming almost became like a high class auto racing competition. The swimsuits became just like engine brands like Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault and had an impact on the race as much as the swimmer/driver itself. However considering the new rules of FINA, I don’t see London 2012 or any other swimming competition in the near future witnessing 43 world records.
*Compared to a flat silicone cap and a standard swimsuit.