As in any other field, sports innovation requires ideas from different perspectives. The greater effectiveness of R&D strategies will always appear as a collective work. A group that can improve athletes by solving problems and finding problems that no one knew were there. A paradigmatic case in the sport’s history with these characteristics is the one of the Speedo swimming trunks, whose evolution was balanced with the refinement of the swimming techniques and responsible for many worldwide records.
In the beginning, the women’s bathing suit’s function was only to cover the body. In the 1920s, the famous Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman, inventor of synchronised swimming, could not believe it when she saw the clothes with which women were forced to get into the water to swim. In her biography My Story, she wrote about her frustration: “How could these women swim in sailor shoes, stockings, blouses, skirts and dresses with puffed sleeves and in some cases well-fitted corsets? And we weren’t even really going swimming. We all walked a bit along the shore, in and out of the water. Those who stayed in the water were so heavily loaded that they showed no joy in swimming.”
The swimsuits were made of wool and could weigh five kilos, wrinkled easily, and formed air pockets. Men used to wear silk shirts, which also caused problems. The fabric stuck to the body and was quite uncomfortable in the water. Speedo’s first innovation was to eliminate the more significant amount of wool in one of its first models, the Racerback. The idea was from Alexander McRae, a Scottish emigrant in Australia. He was dedicated to the textile business. His original purpose was to sell bathing suits that would be attractive to bathers, taking advantage of the beach culture fever on the Australian coast. His creation was not without controversy when Australian swimmer Claire Dennis competed in Los Angeles in this tank swimsuit, as it exposed her shoulders. There were requirements for her to be disqualified for that reason, but the International Swimming Federation (FINA) finally approved her bathing suit.
Since then, research has begun on how to improve this item of clothing to score higher in swimming. It was not until the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne that marked a turning point with the appearance of the nylon Speedos. They were the most innovative of their time and launched a parallel competition to make the fastest swimsuit. The trend was to make them smaller and smaller, covering as little of the body as possible, but the key was in the fabric. They needed materials that reduced resistance to water and with the lowest coefficient of friction. This was when the concept of hydrodynamics appeared, which today has come to produce smoother tissues than human skin.
This stage ended when Speedo relaunched another disruptive strategy. It happened at the Barcelona’92 Olympic Games when the brand decided to abandon the idea of the minimalist suit that prevailed until then. The reason was apparent; if the swimsuit had less resistance to water than the skin, the logical thing was to cover the whole body with it. Thus, they launched some polyester suits for swimmers of both sexes.
They had done the opposite of what all the manufacturers were doing. The S2000, a swimsuit made of a combination of polyester and elastane microfibre, was 15% faster than the rest of the most used fabrics. They covered the swimmer up to the neck with this material. As a result, the swimmers who wore Speedo won twenty gold, twenty-three silver, and forty-five bronze medals in those games. Half of the medals were awarded in swimming. Those who specifically wore the S2000 set four world records. Since then, in the 90s, all manufacturers were aware that the swimsuit could decide every hundredth of a second to set a record.
The innovation was successful in sports, and it also changed the nature and practice of sports. Swimmers competed by training. However, teams of designers, textile technicians, and fibre and fabric manufacturing engineers worked daily to make their brands better and better, thanks to swimsuits. At that time, Speedo also managed to sell ten million swimsuits annually. However, with the arrival of the LZR Racer, FINA had to put an end to its development.
In 2008, athletes broke thirteen world records in a month and a half with that swimsuit in the United States, the Eindhoven European Championships, and the Australian National Championships. FINA had to intervene to guarantee equal opportunities. Up to that point, the new swimsuits had revolutionised the sport. In 2009, they regulated a series of restrictions. Consequently, the swimmers who had achieved records with that swimsuit reduced their scores.
The design was from the Italian company Mectex, the Australian Institute of Sport, and NASA. Speedo was limited to marketing the product. This new generation of swimsuits, assembled with ultrasound, repelled water, increased buoyancy, and compressed the body parts that protruded the most to improve hydrodynamics. It was decisive for the starting point and the turns. There the tenths of the time were achieved, which could decide a record. At the Beijing Games, 98% of medal swimmers wore it.
After the restrictions, Speedo continued to think of innovative ways, insisting on the same method, the multidisciplinary and the disruptive strategy. Before entering the lab, they met with academics, trainers, and researchers. The meetings took place in hotels and country houses with the sole objective of generating ideas. Joe Santry, the brand’s research manager, acknowledged that “the craziest and most outrageous occurrences” could be heard at those meetings. The ideas seemed to be inspired more by Marvel and its superheroes rather than taking the great champions of swimming history and their performance in the pool as models. They tried to overcome the restrictions placed on their swimsuits through accessories, swim goggles, and swim caps, creating a complete outfit. That looked like straight out of superhero comics, according to Santry.
The result after 55,000 hours of work was the Fastskin 3. Apart from technicians, engineers, and experts in nano fabrics, a psychologist decided the colours of the new materials. The lenses of the goggles would be grayish-blue to convey a sense of calm and concentration. To make all these decisions and manage creativity, they used the “Six Thinking Hats” method. In one basket, creative ideas are introduced to tackle a problem and, in another, their viability. Also, they tried to think the other way around. They analysed which outfit and swimsuit would make a swimmer go slower to identify all the problems they would have to eliminate in the final suit.
They used the same techniques as in the aerodynamic tubes of Formula 1 to reduce the resistance of the new components, the goggles, and the swim cap. Manufacturing prototypes for testing was much faster than years ago because 3D printers were used. It only took a few hours from the design to the swimming suit. They did no longer depend on illustrators. They betted everything on hydrodynamics in the swimsuit. The new suit compressed the stomach less and the buttocks and hips more.
The brand’s innovation team employed design thinking techniques to identify all issues in the end-user experience and needs of the product. One by one, they found solutions to each challenge until they found a truly innovative and advanced prototype. Throughout the process, it was critical to break with traditional ideas and standard formulas. They had to move the competition to a place where it had not been until then, so they focused on accessories such as goggles until they were decisive. They broke with the schemes of linear thinking in a co-creative way, between multidisciplinary teams.
In the course given by the Barça Innovation Hub, Innovation in Sports, with Albert Mundet, Director of BIHub, Ivanka Visnjic, Professor at ESADE, and Steve Gera, BIHub Ambassador in the US and CEO of Gains Group, cases such as the one of Speedo are studied to create disruptive innovation strategies in sports. As Visnjic argues, “it is essential to continually evaluate innovative ideas, even creating cheap prototypes to assess the characteristics of problem’s solutions to maximise everything that can be learned.”
- Davies (1997) Engineering Swimwear, The Journal of The Textile Institute, 88:3, 32-36, DOI: 10.1080/00405009708658585
How Speedo Created a Record-Breaking Swimsuit https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-speedo-created-swimsuit/
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