Page last updated at 16:19 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 17:19 UK

Japanese search for new swimsuits

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Japanese swimmers waiting at end of pool
Japan won eight swimming medals in the 2004 Olympic Games
It can take years to develop a new swimsuit material from scratch for competitive swimmers, but with just weeks to go before the Olympics, Japanese manufacturers are trying to do just that.

They have been forced to try to come up with something after the Nottingham, UK-based firm Speedo developed a new bodysuit, LZR Racer, which has sent world records tumbling.

The new suit has helped swimmers around the world break 30 world records in three months.

It sucks the muscles into the perfect shape to swim. Lighter than others, it repels water, reducing drag.

I think it's really sad for the Japanese swimmers to feel like they've already lost the race, even before they land in Beijing
Tomizo Yamamoto, swimwear manufacturer
In Japan they fear it is unbeatable, and the Japanese firms contracted to supply the Olympic team make nothing like it.

Five swimming medals was Japan's target after winning eight in Athens four year ago. Now they are not so sure what they will manage.

Some of the brightest hopes for a medal expressed their frustration at the side of the pool at the National Sports Centre in Tokyo, after a training session for the 31-member Olympic Squad.

"This is a once in a lifetime chance for me," said Hanae Ito. "I don't want to be disadvantaged. I want to do my best so I want to wear the best swimsuits there are."

Model wearing new Speedo swimsuit; pic courtesy Speedo
The Speedo swimsuits cost anything up to 320 ($632)
Her fellow team member Ai Shibata was annoyed that everyone was assuming the Speedo suit was so important.

"I think those who broke the records had practised hard and that's why they succeeded," she said.

"It's not all about swimsuits. It's sad that people only talk about swimsuits these days. I hope people will pay more attention to the swimmers and not what we wear."

Hefty price tag

That seems unlikely though. This is an issue that has gripped Japan.

Some grumble that whenever the country does well in a sport, the rules are changed to disadvantage them.

That argument does not stand up to much scrutiny.

2004 Olympics swimming medals
US - 28 (12 gold)
Australia - 15 (7 gold)
Japan - 8 (3 gold)
Netherlands - 7 (2 gold)
France - 6 (1 gold)
Germany - 5 (0 gold)
Ukraine - 2 (2 gold)
Great Britain - 2 (0 gold)
After all, countries across the world which do not have a contract with Speedo, or which cannot afford the hefty price tag for their new suits - they retail at up to 320 ($632) - are wondering whether that means they will not be able to compete on equal terms.

In Japan's second city, Osaka, a huge steam press is churning out dark sheets of a new material at the Yamamoto Factory.

Could this lightweight water-resistant rubber be made into a new Japanese bodysuit in time for the Olympics? Across Japan, companies are trying to develop a suit as good as Speedo's.

Japan's swimmers in training in Tokyo

Time is against them of course, but the factory's owner Tomizo Yamamoto says the country's swimmers deserve the best.

"I think it's really sad for the Japanese swimmers to feel like they've already lost the race," Mr Yamamoto says, "even before they land in Beijing.

Frustration

He argues that the swimmers would understand if they lost a race "fair and square" but not if they lost to someone wearing a suit they think is giving them an unfair advantage.

He has offered his new material to the three official Olympic swim team manufacturers, not because he wants to make money, he insists, but because he believes: "We should send these athletes to the Olympics fully prepared."

Japanese swimmer diving into pool
It's two months to go before the Olympics and it's a very important time for the preparation... this issue came out and it's bothering for the swimmers
Kazonori Enami, sports journalist
Japan's Swimming Federation had given its three official suppliers just weeks to come up with new suits. Last Friday it announced that a few prototypes were ready.

But the suits now need to be tested and approved by the swimming's world governing body. And of course the athletes have to get used to wearing them.

Kazonori Enami, a Japanese sports journalist, says the dithering over what to wear is distracting the swimmers at a crucial time.

"It's two months to go before the Olympics, and it's a very important time for the preparation," he says.

"Normally the swimmers just concentrate on the training, but this issue came out and it's bothering for the swimmers."

Stark choice

He is right. Another medallist, Kousuke Kitajima, gets frustrated back at the National Sports Stadium as journalists press him for more on the row over which bodysuits he and his fellow team-mates should wear.

Lightweight rubber
An Osaka factory hopes this water-resistant rubber might be the answer
"I want to wear the swimsuit that I believe is best for me," he says, but then snaps: "I don't want to say anything else about the swimsuits, I'm sorry."

The Japanese swimmers say they just want the right to compete with the best in the world on equal terms.

Swimming should be about how strong you are and how good your technique is - not what kind of technology is available to help you.

Some have already accused Speedo of beginning a "swimming arms race".

The company dominates this sport, so Japan and others who do not have a contract with the firm face a stark choice.

Either they can innovate, or they can capitulate and let their swimmers leave their country's own brands at home, and compete in British swimwear.

But even that will not be easy. Speedo makes just 70 of the suits each day, they are not cheap, and swimmers all over the world want to get their hands on them.

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