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Rules and technological innovation: the Fastskin Revolution

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Ever since the ancient Olympics athletes have tried in all ways and with all means to prevail over their competitors in sporting competitions. Some of the methods – for example psychophysical training and diets - have always been considered acceptable without any limits or checks and without establishing whether or not and to what extent they might affect the athlete’s physical or mental health. Other methods have been either tolerated or prohibited. Identifying the instruments that could not be admitted and the recipients of these prohibitions (for a lengthy period they were considered applicable only to professional athletes) has changed over time, in various competitions and in the areas where they took place.

The means which are allowed and those that are prohibited thus depend on ideological variables such as culture, ethics and even the technology that is available. The last century, with the emergence of sport as a global phenomenon, has led to gradually standardize and codify the rules of various sports competitions and to establish, for each competition, what is allowed for athletes to improve their performance and what instead constitutes a prohibited improvement. However, the situation is far from being defined and the rules are far from being stabilized. Mainly for two reasons.

One reason has a regulatory nature. The basis for the various prohibitions remains imprecise. It sways between the protection of the athlete's health on the one hand and, on the other hand, the public interest to ensure fair competition and thus competitions where the best athlete wins without tricks or without doing anything that is ethically unacceptable.

The second reason is of a technological nature. The victory in the most important competitions (Olympic Games or world  and European competitions) of many sports events not only leads to fame and notoriety, but is also implies gaining substantial economic profits, arising not so much from the prizes given to the winner, but the possibility of being exploited commercially. The great cycling, golf, baseball, tennis and soccer champions earn huge sums. And often the difference between victory and defeat is dependent on a few hundredths of a second or a few centimeters. It is therefore quite understandable that improving mental and physical performance in sports has become a field of scientific research and technological innovation with the aim of improving the athlete’s progress. The objective too is to obtain competitive advantages which do not fall amongst prohibited tools or which fail to circumvent the existing rules by developing new improvements that are not yet the subject to prohibition.

In many years of sports competitions we have seen a sort of evolution principle implemented known as the Red Queen Principle. This expression which comes from an episode of "Alice in Wonderland" when Alice and the Red Queen run non-stop and remain in the same place, indicates the principle of evolution that governs the relationship between predator and prey (including lions and gazelles, for example): any improvement in the prey’s physical performance corresponds to an improvement in the predator’s performance, so that neither prevails, thus leading to the extinction of both. Evolution maintains the relationship in balance.
Well, in competitive sports, the constant evolution in research and the methods for using performance-enhancing drugs brings about a continuous and corresponding evolution of rules which evaluate their eligibility and the systems to identify them in a ceaseless quest to discover those who are not abiding by the rules. A good example of the interaction of these two profiles, the uncertain fluctuation of rules and the effects of technological innovation in the sports sector, can be seen in the story, which is not quite over yet, regarding swimwear used by swimmers, known in the world of sport as the Fastskin Revolution. The story begins in 1992: at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992 Speedo, the Australian swimwear manufacturer, launched the S2000 Fastskin Swimsuit in the world of competitive swimming: a swimsuit that is skin tight (in this regard see Jennifer Craik, The Fastskin Revolution: From Human Fish to Swimming Androids in Culture Unbound, 2011, pages 71-82 available here). We are thus launched into a phase of scientific research and technological innovations unprecedented among the manufacturers of swimwear. Not only by the manufacturers that have been on the market for a long time but also by new manufacturers attracted by the commercial possibilities of the idea that reducing the swimsuit’s density as much as possible can produce the least possible friction for the human body on water.

Speedo still remains the leader in the field: in the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 they presented a new swimsuit called Aquablade Jammer: it was worn by more than 75% of the winners in the swimming competitions. The FSII swimsuit was then  prepared for the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 after a careful study of fluid dynamics and biology, with different versions for different races and different styles. Then came the FS-Pro in 2007 and then the LZR Racer was launched in 2008. According to  Speedo this swimsuit - developed in Australia in collaboration with the U.S. NASA and then patented in Portugal - reduces the human body’s resistance on water by 10% compared to the previous FSII model.
Meanwhile fast swimsuits have become the subject of debate between those who see them as simple attire improvement worn by athletes and those who consider them as a technological tool to be prohibited because it artificially improves athletic performance. Those who sustain the first view-point prevail: in 1999 Fastskin swimsuits were approved by the international body that monitors competitive swimming, FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation), which considers them to be compatible with the international regulation that prohibits the use of clothing or tools that can increase speed, buoyancy or endurance during a competition (art.10.8). At the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games athletes wearing Fastskin swimsuits obtain 83% of the medals and set 13 of the 15 world records. FINA's decision does not allay the controversies. Indeed, in a market where Fastskin producers have now become several dozen (amongst which are TYR, Nike, Mizuno, Asics, Blueseventy, Descente and Adidas), those who consider Fastskin as "technological doping" are increasing. Sportswear manufacturers who cannot keep up with the necessary technology investments and are thus out of the picture and the national swimming federations who want to limit the predominance by those countries where these technologies are developed (mainly Australia and the United States) are the main forerunners of these protests. The protests became more intensified after the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, where almost all the winners wore the Fastskin LZR Racer swimsuit. So, after more than 130 world records set in a few months using the LZR-Racer, FINA in 2009 changed its course and banned, as of January 2010, the swimsuits that cover the entire body or that are made with polyurethane: a decision which sparked criticism because it does not define precisely the materials allowed and those that are prohibited, thus the discussions on this issue and the attempts to create new Fastskin models continue. After eighteen years and hundreds of world records, the high-tech swimsuits are banned. The consequences of this decision are significant: in 2010, only two new world records were set.

The Fastskin Revolution story offers a wide range of reflection.

First of all, it is an example of the relationship between technological innovation in contemporary sport and sporting performance. The simple change in the size and the fiber for swimsuits worn in swimming competitions has produced an impressive improvement of athletic performance. The improvement however ceased when the swimsuits that were previously considered admissible were banned. It is also an indication of the close relationship between sport and the market. The substantial investment required to develop a technological revolution demonstrate how even a sport like swimming, which is not as prominent as some other sports, can become profitable in a global market where millions of fans follow various sports. However the Fastskin story is also a sign of how vague the rules governing sports competitions can be when it come to performance improvement. This same provision was in fact interpreted in an opposite manner. Initially it was considered inappropriate to limit the swimsuit's dimensions and fiber material, then it was considered appropriate to ban them: an interpretation change that has led to radical changes in the world of swimming and which made it possible to achieve performances that now seem impossible to equal. On the other hand, the Fastskin swimsuits are not the only technological innovation that have radically changed the performance in sports. After the bamboo poles era, which allowed jumpers to jump half a meter higher than the length of the jumping pole, and after the era of metal poles, initially made of aluminum and steel (more 'flexible), during which the world record reached the height of 4.80 meters (established in 1960), came a revolution with the emergence of fiberglass poles, whose elasticity enable athletes to jump with a radical change in technique. In just over 20 years the world record increases by over one meter. The technological innovation is made possible and considered admissible because the regulation does not define the material from which the poles must be made (it is only forbidden to move your hands upward along the pole, once the body has left the ground). But, as we have seen, even the swimming rules do not establish which material should be used to make the athletes' swimsuits.

Another good example is tennis: wooden rackets were replaced by light alloy ones and then by rackets made in pure or mixed graphite with kevlar, fiberglass, tungsten or basalt. The material used for the strings has also been modified over the years. We've gone from gut strings initially used to the currently used mono-filament or multi-filament strings which are joined at different points so as to form a netting system. They are all increasingly technological and sophisticated innovations that have resulted in a substantial modification of the technique needed to use them and also the way in which the game is played. Here too the new technology has been accepted and deemed compatible with the rules of the game. These examples (and many others) indicate that the different responses to changes in technology that have a significant impact on sporting performance do not depend on technology's improvement effects on performance. Nor do they depend on the fact that the improved technology creates an advantage for the athlete that uses it as opposed to athletes who use traditional technology: a pole-vaulter that uses a bamboo pole couldn't possibly win nowadays against a competitor that uses a fiber glass pole. The same can be said, albeit to a lesser extent, for tennis. There are no ethical reasons that explain the different reactions: all the technological innovations we have mentioned, while improving athletic performance, are - unlike doping for example - ethically "neutral." However, it was decided that with pole vaulting what matters is who jumps the highest and the instrument used to jump does not count. As far as swimming is concerned it was decided that what matters is not simply the person who swims faster, but the athlete who swims the fastest using admissible attire.

Well then, why are some innovations that produce performance improvements considered eligible and others prohibited? The answer, however strange it may seem, is that the factors that enable to decide whether an improvement is permitted or prohibited are not those that are commonly considered decisive: they are the response by those who follow the specific sport, whether they be professionals or amateurs, the public and the fans' behavior, the public opinion and to some extent how the market and producers react.

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