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Kai Ryssdal: More than a dozen world records have been broken at the swimming world championships in Rome this week. Michael Phelps actually lost a race in one of his specialties. A lot of the credit, or the blame — depending on how you look at it — goes to the next-generation suits that swimmers are wearing. Swimming’s international governing body has had just about enough. Joel Stager is the director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University. Good to have you with us.
JOEL STAGER: It’s good to be here.
RYSSDAL: Tell us about these suits they’re wearing now. This is beyond what they were wearing in Beijing just last summer.
STAGER: Uh, yeah to a certain degree it is. Probably the best way to describe it is there is more polyurethane, more neoprene-like material on the suit pretty much from head to toe now.
RYSSDAL: And the swimming federation just this week said nuh-uh-uh.
STAGER: Well, we’ve been going back and forth. They said nuh-uh-uh sometime ago, and then they reversed themselves and then they came back and did it again here recently.
RYSSDAL: So the suits are out, and you can only wear them for men waist to what knees, I guess, and for women, from shoulders to knees. But the real question is what does this mean for the business of swimming. How is that going to change what happens for the rest of the competitive swimming world out there?
STAGER: Well everybody has been waiting to see how FINA was going to deal with this issue.
RYSSDAL: FINA, the swimming federation.
STAGER: FINA is the international governing body for competition. And as they go, so will everybody else. So the high school federation, U.S.A. swimming, the international, national local governing bodies, everybody is waiting to see what FINA is going to do with this issue. And from a business prospective, that’s the base of the pyramid, that’s where the money is changing hands.
RYSSDAL: That is, high school swimmers, and college swimmers, and master swimmers such as yourself, going out and spending instead of $40 a pop, $600 a pop on these high-tech swimsuits.
STAGER: Yeah, nobody at the international level is actually paying for the swimsuits. So you’re only looking at several hundred athletes at the international level, and they’re getting them all free. But when you start looking at the base of the pyramid, we estimate that there may be as many as 500,000 competitive swimmers in the United States, so that’s a pretty broad base.
RYSSDAL: So let’s do that math — $500,000 times $500 a swimsuit is in the millions of dollars, many millions of dollars.
STAGER: Hundreds of millions of dollars. And the routine is within the culture of swimming is that a suit is purchased at the beginning of the competitive season, and there’s a practice suit. But somewhere along the end of the competitive season, during a championship season, everybody goes out and buys a new suit.
RYSSDAL: So what do you make of the threat from Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’ coach today, saying, you know I’m going to advise Michael to just sit out some of these events and let them see who actually comes to a swimmeet now.
STAGER: Well, the big dog has finally barked. Well, I think the athletes are finally recognizing that their commitment and their efforts, and the coaches’ innovation etc. are second to what you’re wearing now. And all of that is very hard to assess. So I think now the athletes are finally starting to resent the question, well, what suit did you have on?
RYSSDAL: Is this a little bit like the steroid question in baseball. Is it sort of technology doping?
STAGER: Absolutely. And interestingly enough, it didn’t come from the swimmers. In other words, the majority of the swimmer community would vote against the suits. This came from the corporate world really, rather than the community itself.
RYSSDAL: Have we heard from the corporate world since these new rules have become at least semi-official?
STAGER: Oh, yeah, there are many suits being discussed, and they aren’t swimsuits. They’re legal suits against one group versus the other group in terms of how this going to damage their incomes etc.
RYSSDAL: Joel Stager. He’s a professor of exercise, physiology at Indiana University. He’s also the director of the Councilman Center for the Science of Swimming there. Professor, thanks a lot.
STAGER: Good to be here. Thanks.
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