High-tech Suits in Swimming as Reputation and Issues Management

July 31, 2009

Swimming is a sport most people only think about during the Olympics and maybe when there is a major world championship.  Still, like all major sports, swimming is a significant global business.  Like other businesses, swimming must be concerned about its reputation (Chapter 9).  This includes what it is doing to build its reputation and to protect the reputation it has built.  This case deals with a potential reputation threat, the high-tech suits swimmers that were popular in the Beijing  Olympics.  The Speedo LZR Racer was a favorite among the Americans including golden boy Michael Phelps.

Janet Evans, a three-time Olympian and still popular swimmer, is among those calling for an end to the suit.  She supports the argue that the suits create an advantage.  The advantage is added buoyancy and muscle endurance.  Evans believe the suits are just a different type of performance enhance but not really different from doping (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090730/ap_on_sp_ot/swm_worlds_evans).

FINA, the governing body for swimming, seems to agree.  They have added a new rule that states:  “’No swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device or swimsuit that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance during a competition.’ The words “or swimsuit” were added after debate over whether a costume counted as a device.” http://www.canada.com/life/FINA+high+tech+swimsuits/1824300/story.html

So why were the suit allowed in the 2008 Olympics and legal through May of 2010?  One answer is money.  The swimsuit manufacturers spent a lot of more in research and development.  The companies also pump large amounts of money into the sport through sponsorships.  Swimmers breaking records in their suits in great publicity that helps to drive sales for the company.  The sponsorships help to build positive reputations as the company is connected to great events, teams, and athletes.  So the ability to manage the high-tech suit issue becomes more complicated.  As noted in Chapter 10 on issues management, all issues have winners and losers.  As a result, even a simple issue may not be so simple.  For most observers. Changing suits that might provide an unfair advantage would seem simple.

But there will have been over two years of record smashing performance in those suits.  Evans wants the record books to note the records using suits and those without.  This would include her record in the 800-meter freestyle but she says it is note personal.  She thinks it is a matter of fairness; swimmers should be recognized for their non-enhanced accomplishments.  This part of the issue remains open.

Here are some links that provide graphics and descriptions of the high-tech suits:

http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/slideshow/photo//090730/483/9604bd4d4c75497aa135b084ac064d25/http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/slideshow/photo//090730/483/9604bd4d4c75497aa135b084ac064d25/

http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/slideshow/photo//090721/photos_sp_wl_afp/2e2d56f84c734319913def6fd4bb8da6/

Questions to Consider

  1.  What PR implications would revising the records have on swimming as a sport?
  2. What PR implications would revising the records have on the individual high-tech suit manufacturers?
  3. What other arguments could be made to support the issue resolution and removing the high-tech suits from competition?
  4. How does this case illustrate the way that reputation and issues management can intersect?
  5. If you were Speedo, what would you be doing now to address the emerging PR concerns from this issue?
  6. Why would FINA have wanted the high-tech suits in use for the 2008 Olympics?

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