Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Part One: A professional swimmer "schools us" on tech suits, the economics therein, and the exploitation they all endure.

The blog post below was sent to me anonymously by a professional swimmer who prefers to remain completely anonymous for obvious reasons. When you read their perspective regarding tech suits, apparel companies and USA Swimming, you will be reading a pure insider view on how business is done.

I do not know who this swimmer is for we set a process so that I could guarantee their anonymity. We did so by having this person post anon to a buried post within this blog which prevents me from knowing their name, their IP address, or what city or state they live in. I do not even know their gender but I do know they write very well and have included details that only a pro swimmer would know.

This article makes me want to step back and rethink a lot of opinions. Hope you enjoy it and I thank this person profoundly for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and educational article for us. :-D


There has been a lot of talk since the “super suits” were banned about how that was the wrong move and how the suits were, in some opinions, the best thing to happen to swimming. As a professional athlete, I profoundly disagree. And from my insider perspective, I know even apparel companies don’t agree.

On the financial side, I have been told by people inside my sponsored apparel company that they are not financially much different off than they were during the super suit era. All of the companies spent tens of thousands of dollars giving away suits because they knew anyone at the elite level was capable of breaking a world record and they wanted their suit to be on it. I know for a fact certain people at apparel companies kept a close eye on the Swimnews world record tracker where they kept a tally of records in different suits. But back to finances, after the super suit era, companies are still charging large amounts for the best suits they can still make. Upwards of $300-400 instead of $500, yes, but they are also giving away significantly fewer. These don’t zero out, but from what I’m told, they are not hurting.

What the super suit era did was, yes, bring excitement to swimming from an outside fans perspective because they like seeing world records. The flaw in this opinion is that it’s sustainable. In time, we would still get to the point with super suits as we were before, when world records didn’t fall all the time. Where they were actually hard to break. What then? From that point the only thing left to do would be to add fins. And even after that, we’re going to run short on world records after a few years. If world records are limited by equipment, why add the equipment? Why not let the athletes do what they can naturally and make that the benchmark? Sport is, after all, about human achievement and it shouldn’t be about technology outside of “sports” like NASCAR, Bobsled, etc. where the equipment is as much the athlete as the driver.

But most unfortunate about the tech suit era is what it did to the sponsorship climate for athletes. I have been with the same company for awhile, so I have a good relationship with people in the industry. I watched during those years that many athletes were forced to sign with companies not for a base salary—where they could pay their rent, for food, insurance—but instead for suits. Many times I heard, “Sign with us and you won’t have to pay $500 every race for a new suit.” Whereas this athlete might have previously made a modest income to help support his training, now he was signing his image away for tech suits just to try and be level with his competition.

There was also a lot of debate about how the suits affected certain people. There are proponents who claim the suits help everyone, so why not use them? But just by looking at world rankings we know there are many, many people who were good swimmers before the suits, became great swimmers with the suits, and are back to being good swimmers. Body types affected the tech suits a lot and I have sat in on at least one conversation that was strictly about what athletes the company thought would get the most benefit, and in this conversation this exact phrase was uttered: “We can sign her, but we’re f***ed if the suits get banned. She can’t swim worth a s*** without them.”

And while all of this was happening, the marketplace changed. Companies were no longer paying base salaries to athlete’s who renewed their contracts, but instead offered very small base—guaranteed income that an athlete can use to focus on their training and success—and instead turned everything to bonuses. They did this because they knew there were so many athletes who could gain so much from wearing a tech suit, that the odds simply put their veteran sponsored athlete at enough of a disadvantage they weren’t worth committing any money to. Now we are past the tech suit era, but apparel companies are sticking with their bonus-oriented compensation package anyway, and athletes are suffering. It isn’t because the suits don’t sell for as much, it’s because they took advantage of a market disposition and now they can. [...]

Part Two tomorrow!


Anonymous said...

Amen to that

TedBaker said...

Amen! To whomever this athlete is, I offer my profound thanks. That is a perfectly worded riposte to all those who thought the suits were the "best thing to happen to swimming".

They - the suits - were a huge mistake and the way they were introduced was profoundly unsettling - and insulting - to the athletes.

Jen said...

Thank you for sharing this perspective. This is the voice that's been missing in this discussion.

Anonymous said...

This may be one of the best posts I've seen on this site. It's really refreshing to see the perspective of someone who was truly affected by the suits issue, as opposed to bureaucrats or journalists/bloggers (no offense Tony). Thanks to both the athlete and to you for making this possible.

Incidentally, it's hard for me to think of many female swimmers who were "suit swimmers". The only swims that come to mind are Kukors' 2:06.1 200im, Hardy's 1:04.4 100 breast, and Descenza's 2:04 200 fly. There seem to be many more men who'll never come close to their times: Wildeboer, Munoz, Sprenger, Cavic, Biedermann, Leveaux, and even Cielo. This might occur because men have higher density than women so buoyancy helps more.

Tony Austin said...

Why thank you, Jen, I am pretty awesome huh?


Just wait till part two to hear what this person has to say!

Russ said...

This post really got me thinking. I drafted a comment here, but it got way too long and I decided to make a post about it on my own blog.
I don't mean this as a plug, but here's a link:

I'd love to hear some comments and get in on the discussion, especially after the second half goes up.

Tony Austin said...

I published your comment and I will link to your in a post tomorrow.

Thank you for linking to me. :-)

Monika said...

Hi Tony,

first of all sorry for my english ;-( hope it's not too bad.

I am a follower of your blog since a long time and today it's the day to leave a comment. Thanks for publishing this special point of view regarding the tech suits.

Like Jen wrote, it‘s the voice that‘s had been missing. I too have to step back and to think once more about some opinions ... taking into consideration this new one. Besides all the discussions around those tech suits – personally I loved them (the suits) – we didn't really thought about this perspective. Perhaps because we don't have so much pro swimmers in our country (germany). Therefore thanks also from me for the athlete and to you Tony, to let us know about it.

I would like to post about it – including part two – in my own blog, trying to translate this article and to set a link for all who want to read the original post.

You send me an okay?

Tony Austin said...

Yes, please post it.

I can send it to you or you can copy/paste from this blog. A link to the original posting here would be great. You can use the images I made as well.

Likac said...

Big thanks to the pro swimmer who wrote this and to you too, Tony, for posting it. I've always been against the suits but I did think they were good for business. Obviously things aren't always as they seem to be.