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Ongoing swimsuit issue creates awkward distraction for athletes

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Exactly a year ago, in the midst of the chaos about swimsuit issues before the Beijing Olympics, Kosuke Kitajima appeared in an arena wearing a T-shirt that read: “It’s me that swims.”

A year later, a 19-year-old Ryosuke Irie spoke his gloomy feelings for other national team members before the annual Japan Open long-course meet with, if not exactly the same, almost the same message as Kitajima’s.

“I want people to see the swimmers, not the swimsuits,” said Irie, whose personal-best 200-meter backstroke time (1 minute, 52.86 seconds, a time faster than the world record in the event) in the Japan-Australia meet in Canberra hasn’t been labeled a world record because of the rubberlike Descente swimsuit he wore. The suit has not been approved by FINA.

Swimmers cannot steer clear of the ongoing swimwear issue — which suits are OK to wear, which ones aren’t. And it may prove to be a major factor in the FINA World Championships in Rome next month.

Throughout the three-day Japan Open last weekend, non-world championship representatives triumphed in 11 of 32 overall events, while no national and world records were established.

Team Japan national squad head coach Norimasa Hirai, admitting that fatigue from a series of intense training camps played a factor in the meet, expressed his reluctant feelings that swimsuits partly factored into the results in the Japan Open.

“We can’t deny the differences of records by the swimsuits,” Hirai said.

The Japan Amateur Swimming Federation (JASF) had told national team members to only compete with approved FINA swimsuits at worlds.

Meanwhile, as Rome representatives like Irie were perhaps affected by swimwear, others might have received advantages from their swimwear.

Eighteen-year-old Satomi Suzuki triumphed in the women’s 50 and 100 breaststroke races in an unapproved, rubber-made Asics swimsuit.

Her 50 race was particularly stunning. She was about a half-body length behind the top swimmer at the midway point but increased her speed down the stretch and passed two of the national team swimmers, including Hitomi Nose, to finish first.

“I knew my records wouldn’t be approved,” Suzuki said. “But I feel like I’m floating (with this swimsuit) and it fits me well.”

Nevertheless, this doesn’t change anything for the national team swimmers. They must perform in approved outfits at worlds.

Indeed, Japanese manufacturers, including Descente, Mizuno and Asics, have submitted their improved versions of swimsuits to FINA officials for re-examination.

But time is ticking and the world championships are only a month and a half away. And an odd situation remains, one in which top swimmers don’t even know what they are going to wear at worlds.

“The results of the re-examination could alter the outcome in the world championships,” Hirai said with a serious look.