Swimming Body Bans Body Suits

FINA, international swimming's governing body, has voted to ban the high-tech body suits that ruled the Beijing Olympics. The U.S. has long pushed for the ban. Jim Wood, president of USA swimming, says the suits made swimming unfair.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Remember those high-tech full-body suits that were worn by all those record-setting Olympic swimmers? Well, the international organization that sets the rules for the Olympics and international competition voted today to ban those suits. FINA, that's swimming's governing body, sets maximum coverage for swimsuits. They're different for men and women, but the specs ban those suits. And FINA set rules about what kind of textiles or fabric a suit can be made of.

Joining me now is Jim Wood who is the president of USA Swimming, that's the U.S. governing association for the sport.

And first, let's establish this is a change that USA Swimming supported and proposed.

Mr. JIM WOOD (President, USA Swimming): Yeah, that is correct. It's the legislation that we proposed back last November.

SIEGEL: Why?

Mr. WOOD: Well, for a number of reasons. I think that the first and foremost is the new technology in suits probably were more performance-enhancing than just allowing an athlete to compete at their ability level. They actually change the complexion of strokes. They allowed athletes who were not very strong in the core to not need to be because they had core stabilization. They allowed athletes who were not great technically to float higher in the water because they were buoyant. And they were extremely expensive, which created a real difficult situation for a large number of athletes that can't afford to spend $600 for a bathing suits several times a year, but the primary reason is that they made the sport unfair.

SIEGEL: Unfair. Now we should note, as unfair as it may have been, that unfairness seemed to benefit U.S. swimmers at the Olympics.

Mr. WOOD: Well, I don't think so. I think maybe some of our swimmers went faster, but I believe that our swimmers definitely had the appropriate spots on the podium based on past performances and where they were. I think it benefitted other athletes maybe to a greater extent.

We have found that, from watching these suits over the past year and a half -they became prevalent, really, at the short course world championships in Manchester in March of 2008 - and having watched them, it seems that the athletes slightly below the elite of a Natalie Coughlin and a Michael Phelps probably had greater benefits from the suits than those athletes did.

SIEGEL: However, many, many records were broken at the Olympic Games in Beijing, and there was much discussion of this. Do you think that with the new rules, banning those full-body suits, we're going to see times, but perhaps the order of finish may be the same, but do we think that the times are going to get worse?

Mr. WOOD: Oh, I think for the time being, the times might get slower, but athletes are pretty resilient that way. And when they set their sights on breaking world records, they definitely step up the level of training that they do, and I think a number of these records will be broken in the next couple years.

SIEGEL: But over 100 world records…

Mr. WOOD: That's correct, quite a few.

SIEGEL: …were broken last year, and how much of that would you attribute to the suits?

Mr. WOOD: I would say at least 60, 70 percent of it.

SIEGEL: Most of it, in other words.

Mr. WOOD: I would say yes.

SIEGEL: Okay, tell us what the limits - roughly what will a suit look like? How will it be different from what we've seen in recent international competitions?

Mr. WOOD: Well, the restrictions are that male suit will be from the hips down to the knees. So that means there'll be no upper-body coverage at all on the male suits. The female suits will be from knees up to the shoulders and not up to the neck. The arms will be exposed, the shoulders will just have a strap.

The other thing that you'll see is they're going to be made purely from textile, from fabric. So you will not see a lot of the neoprene finishes, et cetera, that you've seen over the past year.

SIEGEL: Is the competition going to look less great for the next few years until the swimmers catch up with the new, less-high-tech suits?

Mr. WOOD: I'd be real surprised if that were the case. I would say there's no doubt world records will not be as easy to come by, but the athletes are going to step up.

Will there be as many world records set the next two years as there was the past two years? Not even close, right, but there will be world records set, and there will be some great racing.

SIEGEL: Mr. Wood, thanks a lot for talking with us today.

Mr. WOOD: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Jim Wood, who is president of USA swimming. He spoke to us from New Jersey.

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