“It has changed the logistics of sponsorship,” said Andy Long, co-president of Speedo. “[World swimming body] FINA requires all suits to be available to all athletes, and now Japan, Russia, China and Italy have severed relationships with their suppliers and allowed athletes to choose what suit they wear.”
Speedo’s rival, Nike, has taken the unprecedented step of allowing its charges to wear whatever they choose and instead concentrated on branding opportunities on the swimmers’ caps and footwear outside the pool.
Yuki Tanaka, spokeswoman for Japanese swimmer Kosuke Kitajima, said he had to break rank with his sponsor, Mizuno, to stay ahead. “Kosuke wanted to wear the best suit possible for the Olympic Games and Mizuno understood his desire to wear the [LZR Racer] and allowed him to do that. He still has a contract with Mizuno.” Kitajima’s gold medal in the 100m breaststroke vindicates his sponsor’s choice. “[For Mizuno] it is more important that he wins a gold medal,” said Tanaka.
According to Mark Thomas, managing director at Shanghai-based sports marketing firm S2M, the success of Speedo’s suit has put other sponsors in a tricky situation. “It’s very difficult for sponsors as they want their athletes to perform to the absolute best of their ability. In Beijing manufacturers have stepped aside in the belief that the Speedo suit is the best - they want their guys to get the best performance and they can leverage that after the fact,” he said. “Ultimately any sponsorship is a partnership, where both parties work together for the longer-term good. That’s what Nike has seen - it doesn’t want its athletes saying: ‘I didn’t get gold because I was in a Nike suit.’”
Thomas added that brands and athletes had to be careful to preserve the value of an association. “Ultimately sponsorship doesn’t work if you are flitting around between brands. There’s a technology gap and other manufacturers are doing everything they can to catch up.”
Speedo now expects a sales boost as swimmers flock to buy the LZR Racer. It also plans to put some of the technology into more conventional swimwear.
“The biggest factor is people understanding the investment that Speedo puts into swimming,” said Long. “It underlines our credibility despite the success of the suit at this year’s games, Long argued that Speedo would continue to sponsor swimmers rather than rely on them wearing its products in the pool. “We’re pragmatists and we recognise that right now we’re on the up; that doesn’t mean one day it might not be us, but we’re going to work hard to make sure that it’s us again next time.”