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Phelps returns to a sport where clothes are making the (rich) man [UPDATED]

May 14, 2009 |  2:13 pm

Phelps When swimmer Michael Phelps returns to competition Friday, his first races since winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, many people will be paying close attention to his new, stiff-armed freestyle stroke.

And many people also will be paying close attention to what kind of swimsuit Phelps and others are wearing at the Charlotte, N.C., UltraSwim meet. Especially since the international swimming federation (FINA) is about to try to catch a (cash?) cow that is at least four time zones from the barn door that the federation stupidly has left open for the past two years.

In what is called an "emergency" meeting Monday at its Lausanne, Switzerland, headquarters, FINA’s head-in-the-sand leadership will discuss what to do about the latest wave of high-tech suits that have made a mockery both of all past records and of general time parameters in the sport.

The head coaches of swimming’s two superpowers, Australia (Alan Thompson) and the United States (Mark Schubert), will be among the experts who help FINA decide which suits it will allow at the July world championships in Rome.

That could mean banning the Italian-made Jaked suits that have caused a global uproar in the past few months — and a flood of world and national records because of flotation and streamlining advantages they give a swimmer by being covered in polyurethane. (World championships in Italy ... ban an Italian product ... seem likely to you?)

(FINA has said suits can consist of no more than 50% polyurethane — after Jan. 1, 2010. Some sense that means: legal now, illegal in seven months. Oh, yes, the FINA pooh-bahs also have asked a Swiss lab to do some testing to help decide which suits meet some flotation standard or other.)

And FINA may decide to invalidate the 100-meter world record French swimmer Alain Bernard set last month in an Arena suit that had not yet received FINA approval for competition.

The latest chapter of the suit farce occurred last week in Brazil, where Henrique Marques Barbosa used a Jaked suit to become the second-fastest performer ever in the 200 breaststroke with a time (2 minutes, 8.44 seconds) nearly three seconds faster than his non-Jaked personal best.

Even sillier: Tales Rocha Cerdeira, whose PR for the distance at the end of last year was 2:14.21, shake-and-Jaked his way to a 2:09.31 behind Barbosa.

For those who have any doubt about the effect of the suits, listen to what triple Olympic medalist Hugues Duboscq told the French newspaper L'Equipe after 33 French records fell at his recent national championships — 29 to swimmers in suits completely covered in polyurethane:

"I was the first on the French team to wear the Jaked (at the 2009 European short-course championships). I wasn’t prepared ... and I still did my best times. It’s obvious [the suit] helped. Anyone who says the opposite makes me laugh."

Behind the problem of the suits making records meaningless is a far more important problem, as a reader of one of my previous blogs pointed out: The competitive arms race that requires buying one of these expensive suits (nearly $500 for the Jaked) is making a mockery of attempts to democratize swimming.  And some of the suits begin falling apart or losing their wizardry qualities after fewer than a half-dozen swims, which only increases the cost issue.

"It has made the barrier to entry in swimming even higher," George Block, assistant athletic director of the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, said in an e-mail.

"Swimming has historically been a 'country club' sport worldwide," Block continued. "In the U.S., we have made significant strides in bringing the sport to inner cities and low-income communities. Now, when at the high school level a kid can wear two, three or even four suits [in a season], a '$2,400 swim' is not uncommon. Low-income kids can’t even be competitive when it takes one high-tech suit, let alone four.

(A clarification here:  When I posted this blog Thursday, I thought Block meant multiple suits in a season when he said "a kid can wear two, three or even four suits.''  He e-mailed  to let me know he meant in a single race.  While more than one suit -- giving even more flotation -- is illegal internationally, it is not in high school.  And, coincidentally, another e-mailer had said a few weeks back that swimmers in the Illinois state meet were layering suits.)

Returning to Block's original e-mail:

"The beauty of swimming has always been that it is just about hard work — who is willing to keep their hand over the flame the longest. Suddenly it is the haves and the have-nots. Kids can buy their race instead of earning it.

"Until we get rid of these suits, we are just telling kids from low-income families that they will never be able to compete."

That might have been true even for Phelps, whose mother, Debbie, spent years as a single parent raising three children — all swimmers. Even though the family was middle class rather than low-income during Phelps’ childhood, imagine them or families like them figuring how to afford several thousand dollars for swimsuits each year. Or doing it now, in the midst of a recession.

And the same applies not only to individuals but also to colleges struggling to keep swimming programs afloat.

Phelps worked so hard in the pool to maximize his enormous talent that he could probably have won races in a suit of armor before the sport underwent a clothing revolution in 2008.

According to Drew Johnson, the swimmer’s agent, Phelps will swim this weekend in Speedo suit models, the LZR Jammer and FS Pro Legs, available last year. They will seem like Model-Ts compared to the turbo-charged Ferraris that some of Speedo’s rivals have put on the market in 2009.

Ah, yes, the market, which is why I suggested at the start of this blog that the beast wandering loose is a cash cow.

The manufacturers apparently aren’t the only ones being fed. After all, FINA has to approve the suits.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Michael Phelps discusses his return to competition at a Thursday news conference. Credit:  Streeter Lecka / Getty Images