Innovation & Swimming – an Ethical Dilemma

Records are made to be broken.   There are reasons why that is the case – extra drive to better the previous record; improved training and techniques; data analytics; availability of means to recuperate quickly from injuries; and changes in rules [changes in rules can also make it difficult].

Another aspect is the application of newer technologies in sports gears for performance enhancement.  This is where ethical questions are being raised and the spirit of the sport is being debated.  Shouldn’t the winner be determined based only on skills, physical and mental ability, preparation, conditioning and dedication?

If the benefits of improved gears are equitable, there is not much debate, e.g., the improvements made to the football or baseball balls.  But what about sports shoes, golf clubs, and tennis racquets?

Swimming has been no exception to this ethical debate.  Technological advancement has arguably made more splashes in swimming than any other sport.  Look at the swimming records broken at disproportionate rates in the recent past that intensified at the 2009 World Championship Games held in Rome.  43 new records!  One common theme among most of the record setting swimmers was polyurethane bodysuits, including Paul Bidermann from German who defeated Michael Phelps in 200 meters freestyle and broke his record.  And some media outlets did not hesitate to call 2009 Rome Games as ‘Plastic Games’.  Protests and numerous reviews ultimately led to the bodysuit ban. LZR Racer from Speedo should ring a bell.

Should the records set at the 2009 Rome Games be erased from the record books?

A quick history – it all started with woolen material.  Cotton came next, followed by other textile materials and combinations with synthetic materials.  Swim goggles were conceived to protect the eyes from water splash and chlorine.  Along came swim caps to provide better hydrodynamics.  Goggles and caps saw improvements in term of material and design, but these accessories were not viewed as performance enhancers and their prices were reasonable.  Hence, there wasn’t any controversy.

What’s the deal with expensive polyurethane bodysuit?  (i) it reduces drag drastically by being seamless and covering the torso; (ii) its thin foam like structure with trapped gas makes the swimmer buoyant, even a small lift above the water reduce the drag drastically; (iii) it compresses and holds the body in hydrodynamic shape and maintains a smooth texture even when the body turns and twists; (iv) its compression helps oxygen flow.  Even 1/100th of a second counts!

As an advocate of science and technology, I encourage innovation.  But, I also believe in leveling the playing field.  Most of the sports are popularized by the corporate sponsorship, and they drive lot of research and innovation.

Instead of banning these products, should we not look into making them affordable?  Promote innovation and level the playing field, at the same time.

Why are we obsessed with records?  Is it something to reconsider?

Well, I cannot wait for the 2016 Olympics to see what Speedo, TYR, Adidas, Nike and the likes would showcase and how many records will be broken in the pools of Brazil.  Please stay tuned!

– Meghna Sil


Yes, Add Swim Lessons to the Public Elementary School Curriculum

Historically, many US colleges and universities mandated swimming tests for graduation.  While many of those colleges have dropped this traditional requirement, a handful of them are steadfast in maintaining this requirement.  It is debatable whether a swimming test (yes, test) should be or should not be a graduation requirement, and cases can be made for either one.  Nevertheless, swimming should be viewed as a life skill, like walking, running, reading or the ability to do simple arithmetic.

Why wait till one goes to college?  An earlier encouragement (and enforcement to some extent) to swim at the elementary school level can help change the drowning statistics and promote healthy lifestyle among youngsters.

In June of 2015, the Minneapolis State Legislation passed a bill to look into and develop swimming resources to provide mandatory swimming lessons for all state public schools.  The report from the state education commissioner is due in February 2016.  I am eagerly waiting for a report and I hope to give you the good news.   If Minneapolis is able to implement the bill, it will be the first state and become a trailblazer for other states to follow. It’s only apt that ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes’ state is taking the lead.

There have been some attempts by public school districts in the country to mandate swimming lessons as part of the school curriculum.   One such example is the Wenchatee School Board (in Washington State); this group adopted a program two years ago that mandates swim assessment test for every incoming high school freshman.  I am surprised that many similar efforts are not underway. At this point of time, it appears that the states have abdicated the responsibility to the parents. This certainly poses a problem as many parents don’t have access to proper swimming facilities, and many of those who have, cannot afford swim lessons for their kids.

Swim lessons in the public schools as part of their curriculum will encourage and motivate families to consider swimming seriously, particularly, the ones who cannot afford it otherwise.

I do understand that today most of the public school systems have budget constraints and are expected to do more with less.  Building and sustaining swimming facilities by the public schools can be expensive, but that alone should not prevent us from being creative.

Explore the possibility of establishing public-private ventures to bring swim lessons to the public schools.

I urge my readers to ask their local legislators and school administrators to creatively form public-private partnership with business leaders from private sectors, and share the responsibility.  After all, shouldn’t teaching life skills to the next generation be one of our top priorities?

– Meghna Sil

Teaching Swimming to 40M Children under a Single Program

I am excited to debut my column by sharing what is happening in the world of swimming safety. I recently read an article on Yahoo (Dec. 24, 2015 edition) – Bangladeshis take plunge in world’s biggest swim lesson.

Even though I have never been to Bangladesh, I have vibrant images, some of which you may say imaginary, of the lay of the land based on what I have heard from my grandpa from his childhood memories. The country is crisscrossed by many rivers and dotted with lakes, ponds and wetlands.   Many of my grandpa’s fond memories are linked to swimming, taking boat rides across major rivers, and, of course, the massive monsoon downpours.  He would recount in vivid detail how he overcame fear of water by learning to swim in the ponds and eventually graduating to competitive swimming in the lakes. [My grandpa spent his early years in Dhaka, Bangladesh and was an avid swimmer].

With so many water bodies around, one would expect swimming to be part of Bangladeshis’ DNA and drowning a remote national concern. Unfortunately, not so.

According to the recent statistics, around 18,000 children drown each year in Bangladesh, making it the leading cause of death for children 17 years and under.  I would not be surprised if the the real number is lot higher. Why does drowning sound like an epidemic? Could it be because a large portion of the population lives either by the sea or major rivers? One of the main modes of transportation is by water, so ferry disasters are very common, as ferries are generally overcrowded and ill equipped with safety gears. Due to living in urbanized settings, people in general lack the knowledge of responding to water calamities. With an upsurge in urbanization and economic constraints, an increasing number of children are not exposed to water due to affordability of swim lesson or safe swimming pools.

The massive and unprecedented swim initiative undertaken by the Bangladeshi government, with support from UNICEF, mandates every school to provide swim lesson to the children between the ages of 5 through 17; this adds up to a staggering 40 Million children, the biggest swim program ever. Initially, until enough pools are built, the schools will be using local ponds and inflatable swimming pools that will be provided by UNICEF.

It’s just the beginning, but I am extremely optimistic and wish this program a huge success. Additionally, I look forward to bringing success stories on this program in the coming days. I am hoping the kids will learn not only to enjoy swimming, but also pick up life-saving skills and practices, and promoting them. What undertaking can be more important than saving lives?

– Meghna Sil