x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Records tainted by controversy

As a huge number of records tumbled during the World Championships in Rome, the question being asked was, is it the swimmer or the bodysuit?

The American Michael Phelps, centre, and German Paul Biedermann dive from the starting blocks during the men's 200m freestyle event at the Foro Italica complex in Rome. Biedermann clocked 1:42.00 to set a new world record while Phelps took silver.
The American Michael Phelps, centre, and German Paul Biedermann dive from the starting blocks during the men's 200m freestyle event at the Foro Italica complex in Rome. Biedermann clocked 1:42.00 to set a new world record while Phelps took silver.

As a huge number of records tumbled during the World Championships in Rome, the question being asked was, is it the swimmer or the bodysuit? The world watched closely as a record 43 marks fell by the final day on Sunday. The most controversial one was that of Australian great Ian Thorpe. Thorpe's 400m freestyle record, set in Manchester in 2002, was an early casualty, sparking the row about whether records set by swimmers wearing the controversial Arena X-Glide suit should be acknowledged.

Paul Biedermann slashed an amazing seven seconds off his personal best time while wearing the polyurethane suit to better Thorpe's mark by 0.01sec. While a gracious Thorpe congratulated Biedermann, he refused to be drawn into the debate. But that didn't stop his former teammate Grant Hackett from expressing his outrage. In an Australian newspaper, Hackett said he was furious that one of swimming's greatest records had fallen under such controversy. He called for the complete removal of [swimming's governing body] Fina's leadership.

"I hate saying this because I sound like a bad sport, but that world record would not have gone without that suit," Hackett said. Biedermann, who was not even in the world top 20 at the end of last year, acknowledged that the Arena bodysuit improved his time by at least two seconds. "What Fina's top officials have done to the sport, what they have allowed to happen, is an absolute disgrace," Hackett said.

"New leadership is needed to look after the sport. I'm furious at Fina. I don't know who's running the show at the moment but they've shown an absolute lack of leadership that has undermined and compromised the sport." Fina voted by 168-7 to ban the swimsuits containing polyurethane and revert to pre-2000 suit profiles. What they did not do was implement the ban immediately, the dragging of the feet caused more anger.

Fina delayed the ban until April next year and consequently six records fell on the opening night of finals. By the end of the championships, Hackett's 800m freestyle record set in Montreal, Canada was among the marks erased. The biggest blow came when Michael Phelps's coach, Bob Bowman, threatened to pull the swimmer out of future meetings until the suits were banned. Bowman blamed the multi- Olympic champion Phelps's first major loss since 2005 on the bodysuit after he was beaten by Biedermann.

"I'm done with this. It has to be implemented immediately. The sport is in shambles right now and they better do something or they're going to lose their guy who fills these seats. "That would be my recommendation to him, to not swim internationally." But Phelps, who lost to Biedermann in the 200m freestyle final, admitted he was not in peak form. Phelps, who wears the outdated Speedo suit, said he looked forward racing him again "when swimming gets back to swimming".

Like a real champion though, Phelps put the controversy behind him and went on to win five gold medals. He did it the hard way - hard work. That was not much of a consolation for anyone and did little to remove the stain on the new record times that have gone into the history books and might take longer to surpass. "We've lost all the history of the sport," Bowman said. "It took Michael from 2003 to 2008 to go from 1:46 to 1:42.9 and this guy's done it in 11 months. That's an amazing training programme. I would love to know how that works."

On his part, Biedermann joined the ranks in admitting the new suit did give him an advantage but also maintained that his feat was partly due to his training and fitness. "I must confess the X-Glide helped me. But it was not only about the suit. I mean, during the Olympics I had to wear a suit in which I didn't feel comfortable at all. "But that was past, I trained really hard for the Worlds and finally found a suit which suited me and has paid off well.

"The suit makes you faster but things like technique, turns, start and stamina don't come with the suits," he stressed. Fina reverted back to moving the ban from April to January 1. What remains to be seen is what Fina will do to regain the credibility? @Email:sports@thenational.ae