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The bodysuit debate continues

Feb/ Mar 2009
The sports product marketing story of 2008 was undoubtably the Speedo LZR bodysuit. Despite the fact that all the top swimming brands have for nearly fifteen years been designing bodysuits that promised — and delivered — faster times, the Speedo LZR Racer caught the imagination of swimmers, scientists, swim federations and the press, before and during the 2008 Olympic Games. Swimmers broke contracts and federations lost sponsors as elite swimmers switched allegiances in the belief that they needed this suit to better their performances. FANIE HEYNS discusses whether this belief was justified, and if this is good for world swimming

The records set in bodysuits and the belief by top swimmers that you need to wear the Speedo LZR Racer to break records, might be bad for the creditability of swimming, says Ross Tucker, a prominent South African sport scientist.

Not so, says Speedo’s Paul Barrett-Smith, Speedo is the number 1-brand in swimming and there is no controversy about the LZR suit. It is 100% approved by FINA, the world swim body, so what is all the fuss about?

The LZR Racer cannot boast superior technology to the TYR Tracer Rise, just a better marketing arm and more commercial strength to sponsor the best athletes, says Peter Baker of Action-ize, distributor of TYR in SA.

Some of South Africa’s best swimmers have apologised for switching from the Arena Powerskin R-Evolution to the Speedo LZR Racer during the Beijing Olympics, says Peter Reeves, managing director of Arena’s SA distributor, Leisure Holdings. There is too much hype, at the expense of substance and scientifically correct data, about the records in the pool regarding the Speedo LZR suit, he adds.

Tucker named the Speedo LZR Racer as one of the top sport stories of 2008 in his blog “The Science of Sport”. He maintains that the high number of world and Olympic records that were recorded since the introduction of the suit in 2008 was an unprecedented explosion in the sport, which he believes is bad for the credibility of swimming.

He was especially concerned about the fact that some world and Olympic records were broken within days of being set. The 66 records set in the Beijing Water Cube Beijing (many continental records were also broken) is not progress, he says. “Rather, it makes a mockery of the past.”

Unfair or evolution?

Tucker adds that nine world records had been set from January to March 2008. That was a precursor of what was to come. In a matter of months, the number of world records had risen to about thirty.

Because swimwear manufacturers claimed in marketing material that the bodysuits reduces drag, he believes that FINA should have taken a tougher stand on the approval of bodysuits in the pool.

That post got some good feedback and questions, and hopefully prompted some thought about the causes. There are some who have claimed that this astonishing “record-rush” is merely the result of better training and better athletes.

For example, several of the Beijing world and Olympic records were set by the same swimmers: Michael Phelps was responsible for setting three new individual world records and four individual Olympic records; Kosuke Kitajima broke one world record and two Olympic records; Kirsty Coventry set two world records and three Olympic records, Federica Pellegrini two world records and two Olympic records, Britta Steffen three Olympic records… and so the list goes on.

The issue whether bodysuits, and in particular the Speedo LZR Racer, help swimmers to set new records, has been hotly debated around the world.

Steve Furniss, the 1972 US Olympic bronze medallist, who now heads TYR, points out that in an Olympic year, fast times come in waves. He says that as far back as 1972, when Lycra skin suits replaced nylon suits to spark the first swimwear revolution of the modern era, 53 world records were set. Four years later, 61 world records were broken.

Since 1996, when the compression bodysuits were first introduced for the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the debate had been whether the reduced drag, and more aerodynamic body position promised by full bodysuit manufacturers gave swimmers an unfair advantage.

This time, the controversy was compounded when it was announced that FINA had given the go-ahead for the use of drag-reducing polyurethane panels. “TYR was the first company to use the innovative polyurethane woven fabric in competition (January 18, 2008) when Peter Marshall wore it in a heat he won, which also included Michael Phelps,” says TYR’s international marketing director Chris Wilmoth. Other companies soon followed suit.

The development of new performance equipment is merely evolution, says Paul Barrett-Smith, head of Speedo’s High Performance section. “If you look at other sports, new golf balls, hybrid clubs that drive further, bigger tennis racket heads, tartan tracks, cricket bats, cycling helmets and performance bikes, sport equipment development is not going to slow down....”

Marketing performance

The debate, however, took a new turn as the battle moved away from the pool and into the marketing sphere. The Speedo LZR Racer was clearly in the ascendancy in the sponsorship battle. Soon after the introduction of the LZR Racer, it became clear that the fact that Speedo had signed a number of the world’s best swimmers, paid good dividends.

As the number of swimming records broken by Speedo-sponsored swimmers started adding up, more and more elite swimmers started believing that they needed the LZR Racer to win gold. (Interestingly, Michael Phelps, who won a fair share of these, does not enjoy the benefits promised by the full body Speedo LZR Racer in any of his events — he only swims in the bottom half.)

Then reports surfaced that the coach of the Speedo-sponsored US swim team, Mark Schubert, allegedly pressurized his swimmers to use the Speedo LZR Racer, and also made 3000 LZR Racer suits available to swimmers free of charge. In an unprecedented move Nike, who sponsors the US Olympic team and seven of the top US swimmers, allowed their sponsored swimmers to choose their performance suit brand for Beijing.

Speedo is also the official sponsor of the Australian swimming team, who have for many years shared domination in the pool with the Americans — swimmers from the two countries won more than seventy swimming medals in Beijing and set more than twenty new world and Olympic records.

In addition, Speedo had signed sponsorship contracts with some of the most likely record breakers like Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry and Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington, who also added to the mounting Speedo record tally.

With the Olympic Games looming, says Tucker, performances by swimmers wearing Speedo resulted in elite swimmers wanting to be seen in nothing else but the LZR Racer, which of course posed a problem for those swimmers sponsored by other top swimwear brands.

This created havoc with sponsorships worldwide.

Japan’s breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima (who set a world and two Olympic records in Beijing) and several of his team mates cost the Japanese swimming team their Mizuno sponsorship when they insisted on wearing the Speedo LZR Racer.

Italy’s 100m freestyle champion Filippo Magnini incurred a fine and the wrath of his sponsor, Arena, when he broke his contract to switch to Speedo shortly before the Olympics.

In the US, TYR introduced an antitrust lawsuit against the US swimming federation and the team coach, claiming that he unduly influenced swimmers to switch to Speedo in a way that made freedom of choice and selection virtually impossible.

In September last year Nike, announced that they were withdrawing from performance swimming sponsorship.

In December adidas announced that they would not renew their sponsorship of the German swimming team. Prior to the Olympics some of the top German swimmers had asked to be allowed to use the LZR Racer instead of the adidas Techfit Powerweb swimsuit.

“When the media started to report that other manufacturers were getting upset about swimmers wanting to switch brands, it only stoked the fire, because now people were saying ‘These guys are scared of Speedo’,” says Tucker

It was, simply put, a once-in-a-lifetime marketing opportunity for Speedo, and they didn’t let it slip, he adds. Also, remember that these swimming costumes are all ‘performance brands’, therefore, when the point of differentiation becomes performance, then all the other manufacturers were hurt. Why would any swimmer want a costume that is perceived to be inferior?” says Tucker.

Performance vs marketing

However, upon closer scrutiny, startling evidence emerge from the Olympic pools — evidence that shows that the total dominance claimed by Speedo’s bodysuit, might well have been a superb marketing effort.

After all the sponsorship controversy, Magnini did not even reach the 100m freestyle finals in Beijing. He came twelfth.

German star, Britta Steffen, who stuck by the team’s adidas sponsor, set three Olympic records and won two gold medals.

Seven swimmers broke fifteen individual Olympic and world records wearing the Speedo LZR racer full body suit.

But four male swimmers, breaking twelve individual Olympic and world records, only wore Speedo pants, not the full body suit.

Seven swimmers broke thirteen individual world and Olympic records in the Beijing pool, wearing other brands. The records set by Alexander Dale Oen (Arena half suit), César Cielo Filho (Arena full-suit), Milorad Cavic (Arena full-suit), Aaron Peirsol (Nike half suit), Zige Liu (Nike full suit), Federica Pellegrini (adidas Techfit Powerweb swimsuit) and Britta Steffen (adidas Techfit Powerweb bodysuit) questioned the supposed total superiority of the Speedo LZR full body suit in the pool.

Tucker says the claim of superiority of one suit over another can not be measured, “because we never got to see the performances of swimmers like Phelps or Adlington in anything but Speedo. There is a problem with simply concluding that Speedo was the superior costume. It seemed to add something to performances, but whether it was better than other suits is a debatable one.”

The supposed added advantaged that is provided by a full body suit, is less evident over longer distances and in certain disciplines like breaststroke and butterfly, he adds. “Breaststroke is the obvious example - it’s just a slow stroke, which means the suit would be least effective for it,” he adds.

“Also, consider that in breaststroke, the range of movement around the joints (shoulders, elbows and knees) is the greatest, and perhaps a number of swimmers decided that the full-suit would restrict this movement.

“That’s why you’ll find that most of the top swimmers wear an “above-the-knee” short suit for breaststroke.

“In the case of butterfly, I have a feeling the choice of only the pants is because the upper body comes out of the water quite a lot, and because the range of movement required from the arms makes the suit restrictive.

“For backstroke, the tumble-turn and the slower speeds might be the reason that some swimmers went only with the pants.

“So the stroke affects the speed, and also the mechanics of the swimming stroke, and I think that those two factors combine to determine whether a swimmer would wear the full suit,” adds Tucker.

“Also, don’t forget other factors - the pool was deeper than ever, the side areas designed specially to reduce wash, and so the pool was also faster. That contributes to performances as well. So we can’t say that the spate of records was due to the Speedo. It could also have been the pool, with other costumes providing at least a similar effect. It’s all speculation.”

Media hype gave Speedo edge

Reeves agrees with Tucker that it is debatable whether the Speedo LZR suit is superior to other brands. “The other brands have as good a product, but the media hype certainly gave the perception that Speedo had an edge”.

He believes the whole fanfare about the Speedo LZR Lazer suits has been a complete overreaction.

Ryk Neethling, one of South Africa’s premier swimmers at the Beijing Olympics, says he was so caught up in the hype around the Speedo suit in the Olympic village, that he swam the final in the LZR Racer — but did not improve on his time in the heats, which he swam in the Arena Powerskin. Afterwards, Neethling apologised to his sponsors, Arena, about his decision, and he has since been appointed an ambassador for the brand.

Arena is the sponsor of Swimming SA, and has also signed an individual sponsorship with the 2008 FINA Swimming World Cup series winner Cameron van der Burgh, as well as SA breaststroke swimmer Suzaan van Biljon.

‘Arena performed well’

Reeves says Leisure Holdings SA was not selling Arena at the time of the Olympics and therefore he cannot comment on whether the perceived success of the Speedo LZR Racer did affect the market share of Arena. “Although in Europe, Arena did not lose market share over this period,” he adds.

Eva Vitali, a representative of Arena at their international office in Italy, agrees with Reeves, saying “Speedo’s launch of the LZR competition swimsuit did not have any negative impact on Arena’s business. On the contrary, Arena registered satisfactory results in 2008, with a 3-5% net sales growth in 2008 compared to the previous year.

“Furthermore, there is emerging evidence that all the recent discussions concerning top competition swimsuits has generated positive results for the whole market, and more specifically for the top competition brands, with corresponding positive effects business-wise.’

‘Debate did TYR good’

Baker says when media-reports surfaced in the US about the LZR Racer’s supposed performance benefits, the TYR bodysuit was often mentioned in the same reports as having the same performance benefits. “The whole debate did us at TYR a lot of good.”

Baker says that if you have a car manufacturing plant and you build two vehicles of similar design, but brand them differently and market them differently, they are still basically the same product that should perform almost identically.

“To be quite honest, Speedo’s LZR and TYR Tracer Rise suits are technologies from the same factories, but are branded differently.” The polyurethane panels are merely placed at different places on the Speedo suit than on the TYR, he explains.

“Speedo has the stronger marketing arm and they have a lot more sponsored athletes. They also possess the financial clout to buy those athletes, but if you put them in TYR suits, they would have performed pretty much the same,” says Baker.

During the latter half of 2008 and beginning of 2009, TYR swimmers have also been re-setting the record books. “From November 11, 2008 to December 14, 2008, nine world records were set in TYR Tracer Technology,” says Wilmoth.

“Amaury Leveaux became the first swimmer in history to go under 45 seconds in the 100m freestyle (short course) and just recently, at the US Swimming Grand Prix in Southern California, Mary DeScenza broke a seven year-old American record held by Natalie Coughlin in the 200m butterfly.”

Peter Marshall also set three world records in the Tracer Rise on the FINA World Cup circuit in November.

On the offensive for Speedo

According to Barrett-Smith there is currently no controversy surrounding the Speedo LZR suit. It is approved by FINA, it is the fastest suit in the world, and it is made by the world’s number one swim brand, he says.

“The issue is whether the cost of these suits creates an unfair situation, and that is why Australia and the US are looking into controlling the wearing of these suits at age group level. There is also the issue of swimmers wearing multiple suits to try and increase flotation.”

A meeting was held with FINA to decide on procedures in February, after we went to press.

“You need to remember that at Atlanta in 1996 our new Aquablade suit dominated, at Sydney in 2000 our Fastskin took the medal count, at Athens in 2004 our Fastskin 11 ruled the pool, and in March 2007 at the World Championships our new FS-PRO grabbed 12 of the 15 world records,” says Barrett-Smith.

“What was incredible at Beijing was the fact that individual athletes, regardless of their personal sponsorships, chose to swim in the Speedo LZR Racer, because they believed they would swim faster. The results confirm those decisions. It is evolution, not revolution.

“However, the continued success of the Speedo brand does create a special magic that works at all levels, and our retailers and consumers obviously believe in that magic as 2007 saw our best ever sales in this market, with 2008 a very close second,” he says.

“Is the Speedo LZR suit commercially viable? It really depends upon what value you would place on an Olympic gold medal. Bottom line, the Speedo LZR Racer suit is the fastest swim suit in the world. It is 100% approved by the world swimming body, FINA, and manufactured by the world’s number one swim brand. The swimmers believe in the brand. Our retailers believe in the brand.“


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