Putting The Kibosh On Swimsuit Tech

New Olympic regulations place limits on performance-enhancing swimsuits

“Faster. Stronger. Higher.” Michael Phelps brought unwanted attention to his interpretation of the last word of the Olympic motto, so the swimming world is probably happy to shift focus back to the ongoing controversy regarding “faster.”

With the introduction of a new set of rules for swim suits, governing body FINA hopes to contain the impact of technology on the sport—while giving manufacturers an exact target to paddle toward. Suits eligible for 2010 must be submitted by November, so test out your Saran Wrap and Vaseline theory and make sure it abides by the guidelines below.

But before we dive into the particulars of the rules, I’m sure you’ll want to know whether the Olympic committee banned the Speedo LZR that’s been responsible for more than 100 world records since its introduction a year ago. In short, no. While all suits will be subjected to new testing, the following statement suggests Speedo execs aren’t shaking in their skimpy swim trunks:

“Speedo is delighted that FINA has clarified the rules and regulations around swimwear approval. Speedo has always supported FINA’s position on swimsuit regulations and approvals. We have followed these fully in the development of all of our Elite Swim range. Speedo’s entire Elite Swim collection meets all current rules and regulations and we are confident that our products will continue to meet the new standards.”

The rules were probably meant more to get ahead of the manufactures and stop the expected next steps in development based on the LZR success.

In February, FINA sat down with a collection of manufacturers, coaches, athletes and legal experts to draft a set of rules intended to be more clear and definitive then what’s currently on the books. Following a meeting in mid-March, a set of rules goes into effect immediately, meaning the World Championships this July in Rome will be subject to them:

– The material used shall have a maximum thickness of 1mm;

– When used, the material shall follow the body shape;

– The application of different materials shall not create air-trapping effects;

– The swimsuit shall not have a buoyancy effect of more than 1 Newton (100gr);

– Any system providing external stimulation or influence of any form (e.g. pain reduction, chemical/medical substance release, electro-stimulation) is prohibited;

– All swimsuits of an approved model must be constructed in an identical fashion with no variation/modification for individual swimmers from the samples submitted for approval;

– The swimmer can only wear one swimsuit at a time

In 2010, FINA plans to add a limit on the quantity of non-permeable materials in the suits. No more than 50% of the surface area (25% each for the upper and lower body) can be constructed of a non-permeable substance. This seems a clear reactionary rule to the LZR suit, which contains several panels of non-permeable material helping to greatly reduce the drag on the swimmer. Likely the only reason that material wasn’t used for the entire suit is that it would greatly restrict range of motion. But expecting that manufacturers will be attempting to improve on that limitation, FINA has placed a limit on the quantity of non-permeable material allowed. Suits approved for use in 2010 must be submitted by November 1st.

So just where does the LZR fit under the proposed guidelines? Speedo won’t share its internal testing results, but Jason Rance, the head of Speedo’s famed Aqualab, responded in an email to PopSci:

“Yes, we are confident that all our products comply with both 2009 and the proposed 2010 rules. In the case of buoyancy, for example, we have tested all our elite suits using independent external experts for many years and welcome FINA’s move to introduce a universal buoyancy requirement, as we do not believe suits should be used as a floatation aid. Similarly, the move to ban multiple suits and to limit the extent of non-permeable coverage is applauded. Multiple suits can create air pockets and create buoyancy, and suits using all-over non-permeable material can similarly trap air and create buoyancy. Using limited panels of non-permeable material in a tight fitting suit cannot be used to trap air. While we do not release our internal test data for reasons of confidentiality, we are confident our products meet the requirements laid out, and are busy working towards London 2012, as always within the guidelines laid out by FINA.”

We’re personally a bit bummed by the limitation of suits providing “external stimulation” and encourage readers to send us ideas for loopholes or suits that might squeeze past that rule. Certainly there must be room for some form of iSpeedo with nanosensors that adjust the stiffness of the suit based on the exact turbulence of the water flowing over it? November 10th is your deadline. Get busy.