Debate Stirring Over Long-Length, High-Tech Swim Suits

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008; 6:30 PM

U.S. swimming officials want young athletes to compete like Olympic star Michael Phelps, but there is growing debate over whether they should dress like him.

A vocal group of sport insiders is seeking a youth-level competition ban on the long-length, high-tech swim suits credited with revolutionizing the sport, arguing that the suits could hinder technical development and deter youngsters who cannot afford them.

But USA Swimming's rules and regulations committee recently announced its opposition to restricting the suits, setting the stage for heated deliberations in Atlanta Saturday when the issue comes up for a vote during a meeting of the governing body's house of delegates during its annual convention.

"There is a difference of opinion based on how long you have been in the sport, how informed you are, and whether or not you have a personal interest in your little Johnny swimming faster than ever before without doing more work," said John Leonard, the president of the American Swimming Coaches Association, in a phone interview from Atlanta today.

The space-age suits that cover most or part of the body to reduce drag and make muscles sleeker have generated controversy at every turn, but so far FINA, the sport's international governing body, has announced no restrictions on their use. The NCAA, meantime, recently lifted its temporary ban on the suits, ensuring that collegians will sport them at major events in 2008-09.

Nearly everyone agrees that the calculus for evaluating the suits differs between elite and youth swimmers, but no consensus has yet emerged on what to do -- or not to do.

Leonard supports banning the suits and estimated that 90 to 95 percent of the sport's coaches agree. He said, however, that many parents and others want access to them.

Indeed, the sport's rules committee recommended rejecting the current proposal to restrict the suits in a memo distributed in late June, saying youth athletes should not be denied the best equipment or put at a competitive disadvantage with international athletes. The memo also speculated that the cost of the suits -- Speedo's acclaimed LZR line ranges from $290 to $550 -- would eventually come down.

"USA Swimming should be encouraging hero worship -- 'Be Like Mike' -- and if [young swimmers] want to buy a suit to look like Mike, they should be allowed," the committee stated in the memo.

The chair of the rules committee, Bruce W. Stratton, did not return messages requesting comment. Pat Hogan, USA Swimming's Club Development Director, also declined comment through USA Swimming spokesperson Jamie Fabos Olsen, who said in an email: "At this point, USA Swimming is not going to take a position on the matter of the high tech suits."

The measure to restrict the suits was put forth by the organization's Age Group Development Committee, whose target is athletes 14 years old or younger, Leonard said. The chair of that committee, Tony Young, also did not return a call seeking comment.

The issue is not one taken lightly in swimming circles. Besides the question of what is best for youth swimmers, there is also the question of what is best for the swimsuit manufacturers that essentially fund the sport in the United States.

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