New swimsuits have Japan quite worried

by Kaz Nagatsuka

For the Japan National Team’s swimmers and coaching staff, this is a question that’ll pop up often over the next several months: Will their choice of swimsuits diminish their chance of success at the upcoming Beijing Summer Olympics?

Many believe the answer is yes.

Norimasa Hirai spoke out loud, looking around at almost each of the faces of reporters that surrounded him during a Thursday media session.

The 44-year-old is one of the highest-established swimming coaches in the world. He groomed Kosuke Kitajima and Reiko Nakamura to be Olympic medalists and nearly angrily said Team Japan’s stake at medals in this summer’s Beijing Olympics is in crisis.

But it’s not anxiety for the swimmers of the national team, but a worry over an equipment issue.

“The biggest concern with me is swimsuits,” Hirai said at the National Training Center in Tokyo’s Kita Ward.

Hirai referred to controversial swimsuits that Britain-based Speedo introduced this year. With the new high-tech swimwear — named the LZR Racer — swimmers around the world are said to have bettered their records drastically.

Consider this: Since its introduction, 35 out of 37 (19 long-course) world records have been shattered by athletes wearing Speedo swimsuits.

The problem is, Japanese swimmers won’t be wearing those swimsuits in the Summer Games, because the Japan Swimming Federation had signed contracts with three major sporting companies — Mizuno, Asics and Descente (contracts that’ll expire after the conclusion of the 2012 London Summer Games) — and the national team swimmers must wear apparel one from these manufacturers’ products.

Hirai doesn’t believe the overall improvement of swimmers’ times came coincidentally, but thinks that it has something to do with the new swimsuits.

“It could make differences in the number of medals (for Japan in the Olympics),” he said. “Our swimmers said the Speedo’s (swimsuits) are ‘totally different.’ “

The Speedo-made swimsuits, which have been approved by FINA, swimming’s world governing body, earlier this month, apply a new material that was produced in a collaborative effort with the NASA. The suits are said to make a swimmer’s flow easier.

It also tightens one’s body volume so it reduces water resistance.

Hirai explained that the new swimwear could enable a swimmer to perform roughly 0.5 seconds faster in 50 meters and 1 second quicker in 200 meters.

“I was thinking that swimming is a sport that you’re not affected by equipment,” he said. “When spats (thin) type of swimsuits came out, the position of swimmers’ waists was lowered and I thought maybe it would make time better.

“But it’s not comparable to that time.”

Hirai said he tested the Speedo-made swimsuits with his swimmers during this week’s national team training camp in Tokyo. And he was surprised when one of them had a time nearly as fast as a race time despite the fact that the swimmer did it after a light warmup.

“Some swimmers called this a ‘doping by swimsuits,’ ” he said. “If (our swimmers) lost by a split-second, it’ll be poor.”

As well as the actual inferiority with the swimsuits, Hirai said it could also lead to “a mental handicap” for the Japanese swimmers.

Finally, Hirai suggested that the three Japanese companies need to develop better swimsuits by the Beijing Games.

“From my position, I’d like to push the three companies for further effort,” he concluded.