Controversy Over High Tech Swimsuits as Michael Phelps Loses, Coach Threatens to Halt Competition

MPhelps shirtless

Michael Phelps was beaten for the first time in an individual race since 2005. In a stunning loss at the world swimming championships in Rome, he was beaten by Paul Biedermann of Germany in the 200-meter freestyle. Phelps wore his tried and true Speedo while Biedermann wore a buoyant polyurethane suit, the Arena X-Glide. There’s a feeling that these suits give swimmers an unfair advantage, and that’s the real reason Biedermann won over Phelps. In the first three days of the championship, 15 world records were beaten. “We’ve lost all the history of the sport,” said Bob Bowman, Phelps’ coach. Hmmm

Michael Phelps-255449Biedermann acknowledged he had an edge in his Arena X-Glide, an exceptionally buoyant polyurethane suit that has surpassed the Speedo LZR Racer worn by Phelps. All those suits are on the way out, to be banned by governing body FINA by May. But at this meet, the bodysuits are legal and Biedermann is the world champion. “The suits make a difference,” he said. “I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without these suits. I hope next year. I hope it’s really soon.” Phelps, who has won a record 14 Olympic gold medals, sounded eager for a rematch. “It’s going to be fun next year,” he said, “when swimming is back to swimming.” Biedermann [said he] competed in the best suit he could find. “It’s not my problem,” he said. “It’s the problem of FINA. They should handle it really fast.”

Phelps loosesBiedermann, 22, won in a world-record 1 minute, 42.00 seconds. Phelps’ time was 1:43.22. Phelps, 24, passed on the chance to wear one of the latest-generation suits. He has been sponsored by Speedo since he was a teenager and wasn’t about to abandon the company that paid him a $1 million bonus after he won eight gold medals at last year’s Beijing Olympics.

phelpswinsNot letting the loss to Biedermann get him down, Phelps came back to be the first man to swim under 1 minute 52 seconds in the 200-meter butterfly with a clocking of 1:51.51 at the world swimming championships. To achieve the feat, he changed suits, if not suitmakers, switching after his warmup from his full-body Speedo to leggings. “That’s about what I wanted to go a year ago,” said Phelps, who won the gold in Beijing in 1:52.03. “To be able to do it with about six months of training shows me that there’s possibly still more in the tank.”

Bob Bowman, the United States men’s coach and Phelps’s personal coach, threatened to hold Phelps out of international competition until FINA, swimming’s international governing body, instituted its ban on the polyurethane swimsuits. “The sport is in shambles right now and they better do something or they’re going to lose their guy who fills these seats,” said Bowman. “It has to be implemented immediately.”

Phelps, who won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics last year, was more guarded than his coach and praised his opponent, and not the swimsuit, for the German’s world record time.  He said: “I look forward to racing Biedermann next summer. It will be fun when swimming gets back to swimming. I have not been beaten by the swimsuit but by a great athlete.” But Phelps insisted that a solution needs to be found to the issue of swimsuits, and any unfair advantage that a swimmer can gain from them. “Technology has to go forward but I am looking forward to the time when we can go back to pure swimming,” he added.

phelpsFINA officials said Tuesday that its ban on polyurethane suits might not be implemented until spring because it could take that long to define which textiles were acceptable and for the swimwear companies to manufacture legal suits. The new regulations announced yesterday will limit the size of the suits and restrict the materials from which they are made to “textiles”. There are numerous difficulties with the decision. First, Fina, the sport’s governing body, cannot say when these changes will occur, their heavily-qualified estimate being “by April 2010”. And secondly, Fina has yet to reveal what the term “textiles” actually means. Additionally, the rule change is in effect only a bye-law, which means the decision can be reversed at any point.

Holding a major swim meet without Phelps would be like having a major golf tournament without Tiger Woods. Phelps is the reason this competition is being televised in the United States by NBC, and he commands a huge following here. The United States team has arranged a “duel in the pool” in Manchester, England, in December against a team from France, Russia and Britain. Schubert said he hoped Phelps would not boycott the meet. “It would be a very long meet without Michael,” Schubert said.

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