Fina, the swimming governing body announced this week that it will ban non-textile swimsuits from 2010. This comes in the week that the World Swimming Championships took place in Rome with the controversial polyurethane swimsuits being used by many competitors and helping some to world recording setting paces. The main complaint about this action, it would seem, is not the banning of the suits, but rather the delay in the ban – some including Michael Phelps coach have threatened to pull their swimmers out of competition until the suits are banned. This poses the question of how far sporting technology can go before its performance enhancing ability crosses a line.
Swimming is not the first sport which has seen a change in technology in recent years. Footballs and football boots have changed shape, weight and even material in the past two decades. There is little comparison between the wooden tennis rackets used until the 1980s and the modern carbon fibre rackets used today. The clothes worn by sportsmen and women have also changed. Rugby players now wear tight jerseys so opponents cannot get a grip as they run; athletes wear shorts and tops which give an aerodynamic advantage. All of these are examples of ways in which technology has enhanced the sports, either by making people faster or by adding another element to the sport. The suits will probably only be available to the wealthier nations and therefore give them an unfair advantage. However, these wealthier nations (e.g. USA, China) already have better training facilities and better coaches and thus have an advantage over most other nations. Where is the line between this permitted advantage and illegal performance enhancing?
The main prohibition in sport is of course drugs. This is because it is agreed that with the right combination of drugs anybody, regardless of talent, can become a successful sports star, whether it provides more endurance or actually makes them faster. The advantages which can be achieved through the technology I have mentioned cannot make a bad player good; they can merely aid the already talented sportsman. These suits are considered to be a type of doping as they appear to turn relatively weak swimmers into record breakers.
So is Fina right in banning these suits or is it just holding back technological progress? Sports around the globe are being faced with the question of whether technology is enhancing sport or moving it away from the sportsmen and women. If all swimmers wear this polyurethane suit surely the advantage is neutralised and audiences around the world are treated to entertaining, world record breaking swimming. If the suit is completely banned what is to say that another type of swimsuit will not be developed which provides yet more benefits to the swimmers. Will Fina ban that when and if it happens? In its attempt to keep the sport fair will swimming lose out on the technology which enhances other sports for fear that it might be considered doping? Banning the swimsuit may work in the short term but technology is not going to stop moving forward. Fina’s battle against ‘doping’ is only just beginning.