LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As with the European championships in Budapest last week, the Pan Pacific meeting starting Wednesday will be swum au naturel, or closer to it than any time in the past 15 years.
Swimmers, who live and die by split seconds, and their coaches say the change has not come a moment too soon.
“The people who broke world records in those suits were never credited, as they should have been,” Australian coach Leigh Nugent said Tuesday.
“And the people whose records were broken were discredited, and it just wasn’t good for our sport.”
The suits, made of skintight polyurethane and neoprene, had the dual effect of compressing the limbs and trunk of the swimmer, reducing water resistance, while also improving buoyancy to increase speed.
They were shed from competition at the start of this year, after 43 world records were set at last year’s world championships in Rome.
According to American team captain Jason Lezak, the suits rewarded, or at least kept competitive, the swimmer who did not train hard.
“Last year, I didn’t train much and I wasn’t in great shape and I still swam fast,” Lezak told Reuters.
“It helped somebody more so who wasn’t in great shape, and you can’t really get away with that wearing a jammer,” he said, referring to the knee-length skin-tight shorts now worn by male swimmers in competition.
While contributing to better times, the suits were also a burden on their wearers, who would need up to 40 minutes to climb into them, Nugent said.
Any tear in the fabric would destroy their structural integrity, while a suit change would leave some swimmers unable to compete.
“They’re a massive stress,” said Nugent.
“To pull one of those suits on, they’re sweating. Then, if it tore and you had to put another one on, you’d swum your race, it was over.”
That almost happened to world 50 meters freestyle champion, George Bovell of Trinidad and Tobago, whose suit tore as he waited with fellow competitors for his semi-final at the 2009 world titles.
Bovell’s opponents defied officials’ instructions to go out to swim until his suit was replaced, local media reported. Racing in an old suit, Bovell went on to win the delayed race and the final.
For the winners and world record setters, it could feel as though their achievements were diminished by the controversy.
“For me, the whole drama with the suits shouldn’t detract from who won the world title,” said Australian Brenton Rickard, who set a world record in winning the 100 meters breaststroke title in Rome.
“It did happen for me. I think certain things were overlooked in that matter, but I still feel like I‘m world champion.”
Time and the pace of competition will eventually draw the dozens of world records set at Rome within reach, Nugent said, dismissing the idea that a separate set of “speed suit” world records should be kept.
“It’s a hard thing to do,” Nugent said. “It’s a difficult situation the sport’s got itself in.”
Editing by Ian Ransom