Swimsuit controversy hots up ahead of Games

Speedo’s record-breaking suit may have got the backing of swimming’s world governing body, but it has caused a tidal wave of controversy as athletes battle to book their spot in the Beijing Olympics.

The choice is clear — risk wearing a swimsuit that might be slower than those of your competitors, or break with your sponsor and bid for Olympic gold wearing Speedo’s LZR Racer.

Since it was introduced in February, 19 long-course world records have been set, all but one of those by a swimmer wearing the LZR.

Olympic 400m champion Laure Manaudou of France and Italy’s 100m freestyle world champion Filippo Magnini are just two swimmers who are with rival sponsor Arena.

Manaudou was reduced to tears on Monday after suffering her first defeat in the 400m in four years at the French national championships, although she still qualified for the Olympics.

The 21-year-old finished just third in the event in which she won gold at the Athens Games. It was her first defeat over her favourite distance since June 2004. ”I can only say one thing: I’m waiting for the new Arena suit,” said Manaudou afterwards.

But Camelia Potec of Romania was also wearing an old-style Arena suit as she blew away the two-time world champion over the distance, as was Italy’s Federica Pellegrini when she broke Manaudou’s world record last month.

Nevertheless, the fear of missing out on an Olympic berth has led some hopefuls to consider jumping ship.

French sprinter Fabien Gilot, one of the leading rivals of world-record holder and compatriot Alain Bernard in the 100m freestyle, has already made up his mind what he will do.

”[I] didn’t work hard to be beaten by equipment,” said the Frenchman, who is also bidding to clinch a place for Beijing during the French championships in Dunkirk this week.

”It’s no use wasting energy on it. That’s how it is. The federation decided to authorise them, and in my opinion it’s not a good idea. It won’t necessarily bring the best swimmers [to the Olympics].

”It’s sure that we’re not on the same footing … it’s as if you lined out a 100m sprinter in athletics with studs and the other in baseball boots.

”I’m not training to be second. Today I’m swimming in Arena. But I won’t lie to you, maybe tomorrow I’ll line out in the semifinal, the heats or the final in something else. If I’m second or even if I don’t take a place in the 100m at the Olympic Games by some hundreds of a second and ahead of me is a Tyr or Speedo suit, maybe I’ll regret it [swimming in Arena].”

Gilot said he was prepared to risk a fine.

”I’m not Laure Manaudou. I don’t have a contract which is worth millions. If tomorrow I decide to swim in Tyr or in Speedo, with my club we’re ready for the legal battle. I earn €4 500 a year with Arena. If they want it back that won’t change my life.

”I’ll test the waters over the 4x100m freestyle and then over the 100m freestyle. After that, I’ll either reckon I can qualify in Arena, or that I’m really in form and if I wear Speedo I’ll challenge for the records.”

The French swimming federation last week reluctantly gave its go-ahead for competitors to wear the LZR Racer at nationals because it would have been ”legally impossible” to ban competitors from wearing it.

Some had argued the suit broke Fina rules because it combines a polyurethane layer with a layer of normal fabric.

”It’s true that the inability of certain partners to supply equipment to athletes creates unfair situations regarding performance and that bothers me a lot,” said French swimming chief Claude Fauquet.

But he added: ”We’ll organise that after the French championships our equipment partners will make sure that all the swimmers have high-performance equipment.” — Sapa-AFP

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