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Michael Phelps of the United States reacts after finishing second in the men's 200-metre freestyle, at the FINA Swimming World Championships in Rome on Tuesday.
Michael Phelps of the United States reacts after finishing second in the men's 200-metre freestyle, at the FINA Swimming World Championships in Rome on Tuesday.

Phelps won't compete after shocking defeat by a German in a supersuit Add to ...

In Rome, at a 2009 world aquatics championships highlighted by locals and legends, it's not about the names. It's about the suits. Illegal swimsuits, the likes of which are blasting swim records out of the water and creating a backsplash of controversy.

Clearly, these are not the Olympic swimsuits of 2004 or even 2008. They're faster, more high-tech and made of materials that trap air and allow for better buoyancy. In fact, the "super suits" are so good they got the best of eight-time Beijing gold medalist Michael Phelps, who lost a race yesterday for the first time in four years.

Mr. Phelps's defeat came in the 200-metre freestyle event against Germany's Paul Biedermann. Mr. Phelps was wearing the same Speedo LZR suit he wore in China; Mr. Biedermann was wearing one of the full-body polyurethane suits that have made a mockery of the sport, according to critics.

After the race, Mr. Phelps said he would finish his schedule at the worlds, then withdraw from all international meets until "swimming gets back to swimming." His coach, Bob Bowman, agreed. "My recommendation to [Phelps]is not to swim internationally until this is resolved."

The question of illegal suits has been at the centre of the swim world for the past year. So far in 2009, numerous world records have fallen with 15 in just three days at the worlds. Mr. Phelps was expected to lower his mark in the 200-metre freestyle but was easily beaten by Mr. Biedermann and his world-record clocking of 1 minute 42 seconds.

Mr. Biedermann was in the same Arena X-Glide suit he wore days earlier when he set a world record in the 400-metre freestyle, lowering Ian Thorpe's seven-year-old mark by 1.27 seconds. He talked to reporters about his suit after winning his first gold medal saying: "FINA allowed it. It's not my problem."

So what makes a high-tech swimsuit acceptable, and what puts it over the top?

The Speedo LZR suit was the water-shedding quantum leap that helped produce 108 world records in 2008. Speedo had worked with FINA to ensure, for example, that its suit didn't float or provide more assistance than it should to swimmers, especially late in a race when muscles tire and strokes become less efficient. Then along came Arena, adidas and Jaked with their innovations, and suddenly, with FINA's blessing, almost everyone in the pool was moving at the speed of a dolphin. How so?

The new suits are designed to be better than skin. They reduce drag and stabilize muscles for a distinct advantage. FINA agreed yesterday to a ban limiting men's suits to jammers (from the knees to the waist) while restricting women's suits from the knees to the shoulders. However, FINA officials said the ban wouldn't be enforced until next April or May.

Mr. Bowman wasn't thrilled to hear that since the ban was originally set to begin on Jan. 1, 2010.

"I want swimming to go back to racing. This move to April is unacceptable," he said. "You can't trust what they say. It might be never."

Whenever FINA does put its policy in place, it will ensure all suits are made of textiles still to be defined by the swimming agency. The suits will have no zippers or fasteners and athletes cannot wear two suits at the same time, which happened in Beijing. There can also be no modifications to any suit.

Mr. Biedermann's stunning performances at the world championships have been raised as a prime example of swimming's "technological doping." His watery eclipse of Mr. Thorpe's 400-freestyle record represented a 6.5-second improvement in Mr. Biedermann's time in just 12 months. Asked about that, Mr. Phelps replied: "Usually you don't see 6 seconds dropped in the 400 in a year. I think he was in the final of the 200 free last year [in Beijing]and he's dropped like three seconds in that, so he's having a good meet."

Swimming Canada chief executive officer Pierre Lafontaine said he didn't like what he saw at these championships but was happy FINA finally got around to taking a stand.

"It's going to put an emphasis on the basics of the sport. Now there'll be a process for changes in technology," Mr. Lafontaine said, noting a committee will be formed to review any changes in FINA's bylaws. "Make it a simple, very clear rule and let's go from there."

The illegal-suit assault on swimming's record book has drawn the ire of many a sports observer. Britain's national performance director Michael Scott sardonically predicted 99 per cent of swimming's world records fall in Rome. The French sports daily L'Equipe is not reporting any world mark set in Rome if it involves the use of a suit that will be banned by FINA next year. American and Australian coaches have either called the new records "a joke" or suggested they come with asterisks.

One thing is certain: Swim records are not lasting as long as they once did. According to the website The Science of Sport, men's records used to have a lifespan of 680 days, almost two years, prior to the 2008 Olympics. Post-Beijing, that time frame has plunged to 382 days. On the women's side, records are lasting 247 days.

"Everyone's going to be walking out of here knowing what needs to be done next," Mr. Lafontaine said. "It's exciting that FINA's made the decision."

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