Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Betrayed: How USA Swimming has Sold Us Out for Money

Dateline September 27, 2008 – Washington Post

USA Swimming banned the revolutionary, high-tech swimsuits worn by nearly every swimming Olympian in Beijing for athletes 12 years old and younger during its annual convention in Atlanta on Saturday.
About 65 to 70 percent of USA Swimming's house of delegates, which consists of hundreds of voting members representing swim clubs at all levels across the nation, voted to ban suits that extend past the neck, shoulders or knees, officials said.

I’m sure readers will have almost certainly heard of Zen Buddhism. Perhaps, however, there are some who aren’t very clear about what Zen teaching is exactly about. Well aside from Zen masters who really does? So please forgive me if I go the extra step of trying to explain this very arcane philosophy in simple terms; not because I think you, my dear reader, are ignorant; but only to ensure some sort of understanding as it will be necessary to follow the rest of this piece. Zen Buddhism asserts that all sentient beings have a Buddha-nature of inherent wisdom and virtue, a nature which is created from the mind itself. The aim of Zen practice is to discover this Buddha-nature within ourselves, the search for which can provide the perspectives and insights on existence that can, ultimately, lead to enlightenment. Clear? No? Well I don’t blame you. Then how about this – Zen Buddhism is all about discovering what it is to be a complete human being by stripping away everything else. You’d be surprised at how little is left.

Now swimming is a very Zen sport. It is a very complex, intricate weave of exactly choreographed motion set in a dangerous environment, where pain and exhaustion are inevitable companions in the pursuit of unattainable perfection. In order to do our very best in a race we, like the Zen masters, must set aside thinking about specific techniques and discomfort and instead allow our form to flow unconsciously from the mind. Of course, since we want to set our personal bests before the age of sixty, our young swimmers tend to opt out of spending their time in reflective study and devote themselves to practical training in the pool instead. Even so, though the methods are different, our goals are similar – a very narrow focus on achievement and complete devotion to its attainment. The strength of a swimmer’s mind will often determine the victor. That and of course hyper flexible joints, size seventeen feet, and thirteen litre lungs.

USA Swimming's Age Group Committee at first recommended a ban on the suits for swimmers up to age 18, but it met resistance from members who feared U.S. athletes would be at a disadvantage if they didn't have access to the suits. The sport's rules and regulations committee, meantime, urged members to let athletes have access to the best equipment available.

I’m not sure how many international age group swim meets the typical American competes in but I’m going to guess it wouldn't be all that many. Wouldn't it be more effective to provide an exemption from the new suit ban for those specific events rather than open up the entire country to the expense? Just speculating here.

In Canada, as in many other countries, there are special rules for youth swimming. Up in the Great White North competitive age group swimming starts at the age of eleven. For these younger swimmers special rules to guard against excessive competitive pressure and early burn out before reaching their true potential. Rules and guidelines for our 10&Unders limit the number of hours a meet can have; advises giving out ribbons for placing, aggregate scores, and personal bests rather than the traditional first, second, and third; restrict the total number of hours they can train, and calls for training with the national federation’s proscribed Long Term Athlete Development philosophy in mind, an approach which stresses training orientated towards individual medley and distance freestyle. In the United States serious training is only recommended once the child becomes a teenager. So when USA swimming talks about placing suit restrictions on 12&Unders they are for limiting the new rules to the one segment where competition isn’t its primary focus. Even so, Swimming World magazine’s October 1st edition of The Morning Swim Show makes the point these rules don’t really stop anyone at all from wearing the new technology. It was discouraging to hear Tony Young, Chairman of USA Swimming’s Age Group Development Program virtually concede this point. Incredibly he even refers to the fact the restrictions put in place were modeled on suit legislation passed in Southern California in 2000. Clearly these so-called limits have nothing to do with today’s concerns. In my mind this is a non-ruling: practically speaking USA Swimming has ensured there are no barriers to using the new high tech suits in competition for anyone who desires to wear one.

USA Swimming's Club Development Director Pat Hogan said delegates were concerned that the pricey suits, which can cost as much as $500, would drive promising youngsters who couldn't afford them out of the sport and possibly deter proper stroke development.
"We're in a position where we want to grow participation in our sport," Hogan said. "We don't need to have false barriers to participation. The cost of those high-tech swim suits, for a young swimmer, doesn't really make sense."

But spending a couple of thousand dollars a year on swim suits makes sense for everyone else? To compete in a local regional meet? An adherent to the Zen philosophy would ask one simple question. Why is it necessary for everyone to swim 2% faster? Is it right to question why Hogan feels that thirteen or sixteen year olds are different from ten or twelve year olds when it comes to shouldering the costs of the new suits? I fail to see his logic. Let us have no misunderstanding about this: the number of parents who will stick with the sport after their child has torn both their primary and backup racing suits at a meet is virtually nil. The number of parents who will gracefully accept seeing their child denied a place on a select team because they can’t afford the suits? None that I know. This decision is a crushing blow to the long term future of swimming in the States.

Now I’m going to concede I’m one of those who believe the suits are bad for the sport regardless of the level of competition. There are enough of us that FINA has been forced to engage an independent firm to verify the new technology does not violate existing FINA prohibitions. At least it's a step in the right direction rather than naively relying on the manufacturers’ in-house testing for their rulings.

I’ve argued in an earlier post the manufacturers’ own descriptions dictate the suits must fall into the category of devices, something specifically banned by FINA rules. If I’m correct then there’s more than just a simple rule violation involved here. The real problem is that a device is a tool, and tools work by expanding human ability in highly specific ways. The science on which they rely upon to improve performance will affect swimmers differently depending on the various mix of skills and abilities every individual brings with them. For example as a poor kicker fins help me considerably more than they'll help someone good at kicking. If the new technology helps stabilize the core it logically provides more benefit to those whose core integrity is deficient. There's decent anecdotal evidence to back this up, like the fact Michael Phelps didn’t feel the need to wear the full body suit at Beijing, or that Gary Hall Jr. is on record saying the suits didn’t provide him with any noticeable increase in speed. If the current studies don’t conclude the suits should be banned I’m going to consider performing a scientifically based statistical analysis of the suits and see if there's evidence the new tech suits discriminate against the very best in our sport.

A final statement. I lied when I wrote earlier I couldn’t understand Pat Hogan’s not being concerned about the cost for anyone older than twelve. I unfortunately understand only too well. The host of The Morning Swim Show Peter Busch brought it right out in the open when he said, “... it would be unfair not to allow these new technologies to enter the market place ...” There can be little argument this present farce is all about the large amounts of money Speedo's pumping into USA Swimming. But really why hasn’t a complete ban on the new technology been considered? It’s done all the time in sports. If NASCAR for example didn’t ban certain technologies we’d be watching Formula One America. Why, if we are to accept the technological advances incorporated into these suits, shouldn’t we also accept monofins? We’d certainly swim faster with those. I must ask the question. Just why do we have an obligation to swimsuit manufacturers to accept their products?

Shouldn’t swimming be all about being the best we can be?


Anonymous said...

isn't this the USA? We have a VERY successful swimmer. With Dad in the military and mom staying at home it was hard to afford the suits BUT!!!we did..The travel cost more. It made our child feel good to step it up in the suit department when a meet came along that she had been looking forward to. OK so it was just an aquablade but WE should get to make the choices on how we spend our money to support our children. I can't believe they actually recommended up to age 18. How would Beisel and Sutton feel about that!?! Lets Tax the heck out of everyone who has worked hard..Give it to people who don't..and equalize everything....including swimming suits! what a sad state our founding fathers would find this country in.

Scott said...

But shouldn't competition be on a level playing field? You're talking about buying an advantage over those without the same suit. The rest of the world has been amazed how many Americans without significant financial means have bought completely into the Golden Rule (who has the gold makes the rules) when it creates a society which rewards billionaires with lower taxes but refuses a standard level of health care to its citizens the rest of the developed world takes for granted. Neither do I think spending $500 a LZR Racer rather than $90 for an Aquablade an equivalent choice. Unless Dad is a flag/field officer when you find out junior's going to go through three to six of those $500 suits in her junior year in order to get a swimming scholarship you might start questioning your logic.