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Pure And Simple, A Silver Lining For Alexander Popov

1996 Atlanta Olympic Games Men’s 50m Freestyle Finals
Gold: Alexander Popov (Russia) 22.13

Silver: Gary Hall, Jr. (USA) 22.26

Bronze: Fernando Scherer (Brazil) 22.29

1996 Atlanta Olympic Games Men’s 100m Freestyle Finals
Gold: Alexander Popov (Russia) 48.74

Silver: Gary Hall, Jr. (USA) 48.81

Bronze: Gustavo Borges (Brazil) 49.02

2000 Sydney Olympic Games Men’s 50m Freestyle Finals
Gold: Gary Hall, Jr. (USA) 21.98
Gold: Anthony Ervin (USA) 21.98
Bronze: Pieter van den Hoogenband (Netherlands) 22.03
6th Alexander Popov (Russia) 22.24

2000 Sydney Olympic Games Men’s 100m Freestyle Finals
Gold: Pieter van den Hoogenband (Netherlands) 48.30
Silver: Alexander Popov (Russia) 48.69

Bronze: Gary Hall, Jr. (USA) 48.73

2004 Athens Olympic Games Men’s 50m Freestyle Finals
Gold: Gary Hall, Jr. (USA) 21.93

Silver: Duje Draganja (Croatia) 21.94
Bronze: Roland Mark Schoeman (South Africa) 22.02

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Russian swimmer Alexander Popov stood tall. But he was unique in more ways that met the eye.

Just like other great Olympic heroes of his era, all of the top swimmers in the world used the newly developed high tech swimsuits – but Popov. Some – like Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett – were clad in fully customized full-body tech suits that were designed specifically for their bodies. With the tight-fighting, hydrophobic swimwear with compression panels, the swimmers rode higher in the water, completely changing the hydrodynamics of swimming. Simply put, the tech suits made the swimmers travel through the water faster and with less resistance.

Proudly clad in his traditional Speedos, Popov was an anomaly. While the other athletes were using compression and specialized buoyant materials to gain every tenth of a second, Popov wanted to remain pure. “His adherence to his firmly held principles was ironclad and admirable,” observed friend and Olympic coach Chris Morgan.

Like Duke Kahanamoku, Johnny Weissmuller, Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi and the other multi Olympic medalists of previous generations, swimming to Popov was all about his training, preparation and achieving his full potential. Morgan observed, “Popov knew that tech suits would change the equation of the sport of swimming, but he purposefully remained pure – swimming only in Speedos.”

The transition from traditional briefs that were worn by all competitive pool swimmers and open water swimmers throughout the 20th century through the late 1990s to the tech-suited trends of the early 21st century can be seen in the videos of the men’s 50m freestyle finals at the Olympic finals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 shown above.

Steven Munatones said, “Popov’s statement in his Speedos on the starting blocks was something to behold, especially in the sprint freestyle events where tenths of seconds were the difference between winning gold and gaining fame to receiving a certificate and a team uniform.

But Popov was a purist.

He wanted to see how fast he could go in briefs. He chose to avoid purposefully changing his position in the water and compressing his muscles, as what happens with jammers and tech suits.

Even with this disadvantage, Popov nearly won gold, finishing second for a silver medal in 48.69 to Pieter van den Hoogenband’s 48.30 in the 100m freestyle final at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Popov’s sense of purity and desire to eliminate the advantages of tech suits were a precursor to FINA’s ultimate decision in 2009 to outlaw the full-body suits first made famous by Thorpe and Hackett.

In the open water swimming world, the Channel Swimming Association remains the lone holdout against jammers and techsuits in the solo channel, amateur marathon swimming and professional marathon swimming competitions. While nearly all the competitive male swimmers wear swimsuit briefs (togs) in practice, most channel swimmers and competitive open water swimmers race in some sort of technical swimsuits in the post-2009 era.

Jammers are officially recognized and acceptable worldwide by a vast number of governing bodies while FINA accept all sorts of technical swimsuits and even wetsuits when the water temperature is below 20°C (68°F). Purists a la Popov in the open water swimming world are increasingly becoming a smaller and smaller minority while virtually no elite pool swimmers compete in briefs.

When and how did this evolution and new form of tech suits come about? Who were the first swimmers to cross the line from the slower briefs to the faster jammers? Why are these tech suits and jammers faster?

The World Open Water Swimming Association investigated this global transformation to jammers and tech suits, especially those individuals aiming to be more competitive and swim faster. But it was not the open water community that initially pushed the envelope towards swimwear made by hydrophobic fibers, it was their pool swimming colleagues. The shift occurred during the 1996-2000 quadrennial.

At the 1996 Olympics, briefs were still in [see videos above], but by the 2000 Olympics, the transition was complete – except for Popov. One illustrative example was the men’s 100m freestyle at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics versus the men’s 100m freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Jamie Cornforth, Head of Category Strategy and Planning at Speedo International recalls, “Jammers became fashionable among pool swimmers after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. It was at these Games that Speedo launched the first ever jammers on the market. They were part of our Aquablade collection, which was worn by 77% of medal winners at the Olympic Games.”

American Olympic champion Gary Hall Jr. remembers, “After the 1998 FINA World Championships in Perth and during the season leading up to 2000 Olympics. Speedo offered the jammer in their new shark skin fabric.” While athletes could gain an edge through dryland work, interval training, technique and nutrition, they now had another opportunity through equipment to gain a competitive edge.

Phillip Whitten, a prolific swimming author who extensively covered swimming for Swimming World Magazine over the decades, describes the shift. “The transition to jammers was complete by the 1998 FINA World Championships in Perth. I remember commenting on it at the time and counting the number of finalists wearing traditional suits, jammers or full body suits to put some numbers behind my impression. The swimmers wearing jammers far outnumbered any other option.”

American Olympic champion Gary Hall Sr. remembers his son’s own preferences and those of his competitors. “In the 100m freestyle, the preferences varied from briefs (not many, such as Alexander Popov) to jammers that were used more in the sprints and breaststroke to full legs to full body suits, both farmer johns and full body with sleeves like those suits favored by Ian Thorpe. Gary Jr. preferred the jammers in the 50m freestyle and the full legs in the 100m freestyle.”

Gary Jr. explains the reasons for the shift. “The new fabric was stretchier than the ‘paper’ suit materials of the past, allowing for a more modest and comfortable fit. The objectives for racing paper briefs were to be as small as possible in sizing. Compression was also a benefit.

All the other companies tried that season to make a jammer, some with the old paper material. It didn’t work. At trials in 2000 I was contracted with The Victor who rushed the production of one of these mentioned paper jammers. It was completely see-through and ripped in the semi-finals right down the middle. I wore the Speedo in finals.”

It was a revolutionary like no other. “At that time, in the USA, Speedo dominated the manufacturing, while in the rest of the world, Arena, Adidas and others provided many suits,” says Gary Sr. “By 2004, nearly everyone was wearing jammers in the sprints and long legs in the distance events. Thorpe still wore the body suit. Others were trying out bodysuits, but still in Lycra.”

By the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the polyurethane body suits were all the rage and world records were falling at an unprecedented rate. The outrage among coaches eventually led to FINA dialing back the evolution through swimsuit regulations. By 2010, the men were back to wearing Lycra jammers only.

The open water swimming world immediately followed in the wake of the pool swimmers.

Alex Kostich, multi-time winner of many major open water swims throughout the Americas, describes the transition. “I distinctly remember the jammers debuting in the open water races around 1998. I didn’t wear jammers until 2001, but I don’t recall there ever being a big announcement or push to change from traditional Speedos to the jammer model. It just seemed to happen over time as pool swimmers dabbled into open water and brought their habits with them.”

From the days when male swimsuits seemingly got smaller and smaller to the era when most of the lower body was covered was a bit strange to old-schoolers. “
For me personally it was a strange change, since it seemed counterintuitive to wear more material on your body as a way of swimming faster especially in longer distances, where I perceived the extra fabric to be unnecessary drag,” explains Kostich. “As more and more articles and Speedo’s own promotional materials hit the market about tech suits being faster than naked skin, I remember switching over.”

The switch was clearly a drive to swim faster and be more competitive for most individuals, but still there were many who preferred the jammer because of its more generous aesthetic coverage. Kostich recalls, “Using jammers initially was more to assimilate to the current aesthetic rather than a firm belief that I would be swimming that much faster. 
Of course, with the advent of the full body and ¾-length tech suits, I realized how helpful they could be in the pool and I became a believer. But of course that [full tech suit evolution] was short-lived and we’re back to jammers now.

While boys and men in ocean swims and lake competitions from Europe to the Americas and Asia exchanged their briefs for jammers in competition, it took a bit longer for the transition to occur in channel swimming and marathon swimming. But even though the channel swimmers started later, the global drive to jammers was undeniable. Michael Oram remembers the first time channel swimmers started to deviate from the traditional briefs of the 20th century. “Christof Wandratsch [of Germany] was the first person to use jammers. It caused a lot of controversy and the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association got involved when they were used down there.”

Wandratsch’s first record attempt was with Reg and Ray Brickell of the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) in 2003 with a time of 7 hours 25 minutes. The CSA and the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CS&PF) clarified their rules after Wandratsch’s swim. Oram describes the historical decision, “The CS&PF went for ‘finishing above the knee’ – and Jenny at Hubert house spent the night before Christof’s record swim cutting down and altering his costume to comply.”

With his modified swimwear, Wandratsch swam with Oram on August 1st 2005. “We broke the record with a 7 hour 3 minute 52 second swim, landing at the tip of Cap Gris Nez,” says Oram. The night before his swim was an interesting sidelight to the swimsuit transformation in the annals of channel swimming. Oram recalls, “Jenny altered Christof’s swimsuit to comply with the costume regulations after the controversial conversations from the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association. His South African swim was in the same costume as his CSA swim and the debate was where it finished reference his knees.”

The debate centered around Wandratsch’s swim from Three Anchor Bay to Robben Island on February 6th 2005. He swam record time of 2 minutes 11 seconds, but his choice of swimwear caused a stir that involved Peter Bales, Tony Scalabrino, Lewis Pugh, and other South African purists who preferred traditional Speedo costumes. Bales, the observer of Wandratsch’s swim, noted that his black body suit was used in a ratified English Channel crossing so he decided to allow its use. Later that evening acting upon a claim issued by Pugh, the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association met by committee and decided to disqualify Wandratsch.

The argument centered on a few key allegations. Firstly, the costume was not legless. It did not stop at the crotch as the Channel Swimming Association required. Additionally, the leg section was of neoprene-type material that offered the combination of thermal protection and buoyancy. Scalabrino wrote, “The costume was similar to a standard Speedo RacerBack women’s swimsuit with the addition of two short legs. However, no neoprene was used in the suit. A buoyancy test was conducted, but the swimsuit did not rise to the surface when it was immersed in water. Thermal protection was judged to be negligible at least when compared with a standard women’s Racerback costume.”

David Frantzeskou reported on the controversy, “Christof did use that swimsuit when swimming the [English] Channel in 2003. It was recognized and accepted by Mike Read of the CSA who was the Observer of the swim on Reg Brickell’s boat. He wanted to swim in a suit similar to Captain Webb and Chris’ father made it for him.”

Oram was brought into the mix. He reported back to Bales and the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association, “Our CS&PF website has the Federation rules and information on it if they are of any help. As far as we are concerned, the rules that the costume must be a ‘standard swimsuit’ that does not help in retaining heat that’s made of neoprene, rubber or a similar material. We also say that it must finish at the top of the arms and not go below the knees. Christof has swum first with the CSA and then with the CS&PF in his Channel swims. On both occasions he has worn a body suit type costume that was within the rules and finished on the shoulders and above the knees.”

Oram looked into the issue and shared the decision with his colleagues from South Africa. “We, the CS&PF, did not consider the suit he wore in the channel to aid body heat and did allow him to use it – so did the CSA Ltd. when he swam under their rules. They recognized his swim of 7 hours 19 minutes as being the second fastest crossing. His swim is listed in both our and their records.

It is a suit that both FINA and ASA (the UK’s Amateurs Swimming Association) – approve for their competitions and similar to those warm by the top athletes in competition around the world. Both organisation’s sets of rules are virtually the same. I edited and rewrote the CSA rules while I was the Honorary Secretary in 1994 and the CS&PF rules are similar to that content.”

Scalabrino confirmed the outcome of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (CLDSA) committee debate. “The swimsuit was acceptable to both the CSA and the CS&PF. The assurance given to Peter Bales was correct. It was decided that a meeting of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association committee plus interested parties be held to review the disqualification.”

Lewis Pugh, the author of the objection, requested that prominent Johannesburg attorney Gary Austin, an experienced open water and channel swimmer himself, be appointed to be the sole arbitrator of the merits of the disqualification. Austin ruled, “The swimmer wore a costume of a design and manufacture which is a new concept to open water swimming in South Africa or albeit that there was doubt as to whether the costume would have conformed with the rules of other international open water swimming bodies, it was found that there was insufficient evidence that the rule of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association relating to costumes as they current stand, have been breached.”

In summary, the disqualification was repealed and a new era of swimsuits in the open water swimming world was officially ushered in. Like the competitive pool swimming world, the shift was complete when the Marathon Swimmers Federation officially ruled that jammers are part of the traditional marathon swimming community in 2014.

I am supportive of the Marathon Swimmers Federation rules, but I have to agree with Lewis Pugh and others that jammers and tech suits that are common in the 21st century do not strictly follow The Spirit of Marathon Swimming as officially defined and accepted by marathon swimmers around the world,” observed Munatones. “It is clear to me that jammers and tech suits – and the underlying fibers that comprise of these next-generation swimwear – enable a swimmer to have distinct advantages over the traditional Speedos and briefs that were largely worn throughout the 20th century..”

The Marathon Swimmers Federation rules “are guided by the traditions and spirit of unassisted marathon swimming” according to its website. The rules define this spirit of unassisted marathon swimming, “Marathon swimmers embrace the challenge of crossing wild, open bodies of water with minimal assistance beyond their own physical strength and mental fortitude. There are ways to make the sport easier, but marathon swimmers consciously eschew them. Marathon swimmers take pride that their achievements can be meaningfully compared to the achievements of previous generations, because the standard equipment of the sport has not changed significantly since 1875.”

Despite the 21st shift in swimwear, GPS navigation, chemical lights for night swims, and gel packs were not available to open water swimmers in the previous century, so as with widely accepted swimwear usage, modern technology and its advantages move on – although Olympic swimmers like Popov made a solid stand of purity,” said Munatones.

Swimwear manufacturers gave some historical background on the the drive towards jammers and tech suits. Representatives were asked what makes a jammer faster than a traditional swimsuit brief based on the different materials:

Alan Welco of FINIS said, “The material, cut, and compression of a technical suit jammer will all contribute to it being faster than a brief. Competitive swimmers use these suits because the materials repel water better than the exposed skin does, meaning you move through the water more efficiently. Good technical racing suits (i.e., jammers) will be very lightweight, and should fit tightly without any major wrinkles. This also cuts down on drag and adds an element of compression to the user, which reduces muscle fatigue. Good tech suits have also done away with large stitched seams, which once again reduce the drag experienced dramatically.”

Steve Furniss, founder of TYR, said, “We must realize that rules have changed since their introduction, but what made them faster was buoyancy and larger surface with lower drag coefficient; thus greater coverage was preferable over a racer as it elevated or lifted the swimmers thighs and upper legs creating lift and reducing drag. Less drag meant that less energy was required to propel the same mass through the water. Or looking at it another way, it lifted the swimmer creating less resistance making the body mass more efficient – and faster through the water – when expending the same amount of energy. Later it was expanded to full body suits or full suits from knee to shoulder as this covered more body mass and floated more of it.”

Jamie Cornforth of Speedo International said, “We know that Speedo jammers are faster than a traditional swimsuit brief for several reasons. Firstly, jammers provide greater body coverage which creates less drag (fabric is faster than skin), therefore reducing the overall skin friction drag in the water. Secondly, the compression in a racing jammer creates a rigid cage effect around the legs which reduces muscle and skin movement in the water; this further reduces skin friction drag. And finally, the construction of the seams, and the placement and orientation of fabrics can be engineered to give a spring effect to the legs. For example, coming out of a turn the swimmer can benefit from a boost of energy from the suit itself.”

They all recalled when jammers become fashionable among pool swimmers:

Alan Welco (FINIS): “Jammers and their female counterpart – FINIS’ is called a ‘Race John’ -became popular once the textile that was used was faster than human skin. There reached a boiling point where full-body suits were banned in competitive swimming, and the Jammer and Race John are what we are left with. Jammers also provide more coverage for age group swimmers who feel comfortable wearing a brief.

If you are wearing a standard polyester suit designed for training and durability, it becomes more a matter of personal preference. More traditional swimmers will typically prefer a brief, while others will typically use a jammer due to the coverage of the legs and a feeling similar to that of biking shorts.”

Steve Furniss (TYR): “They began to appear in various swim brand’s lines starting around or just after the 2000 Olympics which popularized them. The reason they became fashionable or widely accepted was that manufacturers and our governing body wanted to retain young male swimmers in the sport. Often adolescent boys were kidded or derided about wearing racers by their non-swimming peers. As the boys tend to be modest at that age, the industry somewhat invented the jammer as a more conservative alternative to the racer since it provided more coverage and was closely patterned after the look and length of then popular long, above-the-knee surf shorts which were considered cool to wear. Triathletes also furthered their acceptance and popularity as the sport of triathlon grew. However in more recent years – the past 3 years – we have seen racers regaining popularity as a training suit as they are more comfortable so we see more elite swimmers (i.e., club swimmers) returning to their use from about high School age and on. Of course, us old guys never left the fold as most from my era stayed steadfast as racer users.”

Jamie Cornforth (Speedo

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