Move over weightlifting, shift aside professional cycling, and make some room you Olympic sprinters. We think we’ve found a sport that makes you three, regular gold, silver and bronze medallists in the title for least-credible sport, look positively sensible and well run.
Yes, swimming has proved with its performance over the past few days at the FINA world championships in Rome that it is now a laughing stock on a par with any of that drug-tainted trio. In allowing the development of swimmers’ bodysuits to go unchecked, at least until next year, FINA — swimming’s governing body — has witnessed the rewriting of its record books this week.
The situation has got so out of hand that Ian Thorpe’s seven-year-old 400m freestyle world record was broken on Monday by Germany’s Paul Biedermann, and the most successful athlete in Olympic history, Michael Phelps, yesterday suffered his first defeat in the 200m freestyle in five years — losing his world record in the process — to the same German.
Biedermann was not even ranked in the world’s top 20 at the end of last year. But he wears an Arena X-Glide suit, one of the controversial costumes that are said to give an unfair advantage to its wearers. Even Biedermann himself had the good grace to admit the swimsuit, rather than his own talent, enabled him to break Thorpe’s world record.
“I would never have broken that world record with another swimsuit,” he said. “I didn’t even think I would make the final. It’s a pity that the suit creates such a situation.”
A pity indeed. The FINA Congress recently voted overwhelmingly to ban all swimsuits containing polyurethane and revert to full textile fabrics, and bodysuit profiles allowed before 2000. But instead of implementing the ban immediately, FINA delayed it until the start of next year.
This has given rise to the extraordinary situation where six world records fell on the opening night of the finals. They included two marks that have withstood the unchecked advances in bodysuit technology — Thorpe’s 400m freestyle and Inge de Bruijn’s 100m butterfly.
As a result, Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman this morning told reporters that he would recommend his protege not race internationally until FINA made good on all the changes, and brought some integrity back to the sport. Bowman’s dramatic statement comes hard on the heels of Australian long-distance great Grant Hackett’s call for the complete removal of the FINA leadership for allowing this ridiculous situation to come about.
And, on the evidence presented this week, who can argue with him?
“What FINA’s top officials have done to the sport is an absolute disgrace,” Hackett said.
“I want to see world records broken. I want to see my world records broken … But I don’t marvel at this. It’s a bloody shame — no-one’s talking about champions like Michael Phelps. All the talk is about these suits.
“Every world record now should come with a notation setting out what kind of suit the swimmer was wearing.”
Charles Happell is co-founder of The Toy Department sports blog.