x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Swimming needs to keep check on the impact of technology

Britain's Rebecca Adlington - who picked up a bronze medal in Rome despite shunning the new bodysuits - compared their use with that of performance enhancing drugs.

German's Paul Biedermann wears the controversial suit at the World Championships in Rome.
German's Paul Biedermann wears the controversial suit at the World Championships in Rome.

The romantic in me likes to think that if someone turned up at Wimbledon one year with a wooden racket, like Bjorn Borg used to use, they could win the thing. The romantic in me is, of course, wrong. Once titanium, the so-called space-age metal, and various graphic compounds were introduced, enabling rackets to be lightweight and powerful, the genie was out of the bottle, and there was no going back. In any case, where is anybody going to find a wooden racket these days - except maybe in granddad's loft?

At the top level, every aspect of the racket is minutely examined - string tension, grip, frame, and so on - to ensure it suits the player's style, with the hope that a judicious choice of equipment might give the competitor a crucial edge. The story is similar in golf, and it is something the romantic in me has learnt to live with. The R in me knows that despite the fact that the average TV golf channel subsists on commercials for super new clubs promising to turn the most hopeless duffer into a champion, in the final analysis what makes a Tiger Woods or Roger Federer is not the kit he uses, but what he has between his ears.

In Formula One, the balance is clearly more in favour of the equipment, as Lewis Hamilton is finding this season. If the car is not right, those podium finishes will be few and far between, but even in the best vehicle, ultimate success depends on a driver with a cool head and some extraordinary daring, just as it did in the days of Stirling Moss or Juan Fangio. And then we come to swimming, where the new polyurethane-coated swimsuits have not so much enhanced performances as entirely changed the face of the sport. Records have tumbled at the championships in Rome, all of them going to swimmers wearing the bodysuits, which I understand you have to more or less lever yourself into about an hour before your race.

It seems to me that here is an example of the balance swinging too far towards the technology. The new suits, which transform the swimmer's body surface into something like that of a dolphin, have little in common with the trunks or swimsuit you or I might throw into our swim bag. Britain's Rebecca Adlington - who picked up a bronze medal in Rome despite shunning the new bodysuits - compared their use with that of performance enhancing drugs.

Certainly, some of the arguments surrounding their introduction are similar, notably that if one competitor uses them, they all must to keep the playing field level. Thankfully, the authorities say that from 2010 bodysuits will no longer be permitted in international competition. Swimsuits must be textiles only. This is to be applauded, not so much at championship level, but for children taking up competitive swimming. No parent wants to be at the pool hours before a tournament helping a child into a rubber dolphin suit, to say nothing of the expense. Barbadian swimmer Vaughn Forsythe reckoned to have shelled out US$520 (Dh1,913) for his togs for the Rome games.

It all exposes a deeper flaw in the sport of swimming, though, where strategy, tactics, courage, and so on play such a small part, that your kit can be the difference between success and failure. So why does swimming continue to play such a prominent part in the Olympics, with handfuls of medals at stake? The current row seems to reinforce my view that swimming is less a sport, more a fine way of keeping fit, and a really excellent way of not drowning.

One of my favourite sports stories of recent weeks was theunexpected appearance of Andy Murray in an amateur tennis competition, helping North of Scotland out in a county match. One can only imagine what the amateurs of Hertfordshire felt when they found themselves facing the world No 3. One trusts they were inspired in the presence of greatness. My reaction, I fear, would be to jack it in altogether and take up Scrabble, which may be why I never made it to the top level

There has been barely a ball kicked in earnest so far - we can discount most of the pre-season tournaments - but the English Premier League is alreadyelbowing aside some of the Ashes coverage in the UK press, with several intriguing questions being posed. Will Carlo Ancelotti propel Chelsea to new heights? Will Manchester City break into the big four? And what of Manchester United? How will the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez affect them? Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka says United's high-profile departures leave the Reds seriously weakened. He may be right, but this sounds to me like psyching out the opposition. Who does he think he is - Sir Alex Ferguson?

mkelner@thenational.ae