Wednesday, July 29, 2009

High-tech in the pool but not for long

Have you heard about the huge ruckus arising from the World Swimming Championships underway in Rome? A year after records fell like dominos in Beijing and the Speedo LZR bodysuit was all the rage, swimsuit technology continues to evolve to the point where observers think that the new suits, such as the Arena X-Glide and Jaked 101, are simply too fast.

How fast are they? Paul Biedermann of Germany wore a new X-Glide in the 200 meter freestyle finals yesterday. Michael Phelps, he of the 8 gold medals in Beijing, wore a Speedo LZR designed with 1-year old technology. Biedermann not only blew away Phelps by a full body length but smashed Phelps' world record. In doing so, Biedermann handed Phelps his first individual loss since 2005 and dropped 2 seconds off his prior best time in that race. In fact, Biedermann has chopped 4 seconds off his previous best times (good enough for 5th in Beijing) in just the last year since switching to the Arena X-Glide, a staggering amount for this race at this level of competition.

Phelps apparently wasn't too pleased. His coach threatened to pull Phelps from future races unless something was done about these new suits. And now, FINA, the governing body of competitive swimming, agreed to a ban on the suits starting next year, referring to them as technological doping. In the meantime, world records continue to be shattered in Rome as the new high-tech suits give a whole new meaning to "arms race" in the pool.

So what's the deal with these suits? The newest and fastest ones like the X-Glide and the Jaked 101 are polyurethane, increasing the body's buoyancy so a swimmer floats higher and therefore encounters less resistance as they pass through the water. Do these suits really help? You bet. Everyone knows it, including Biedermann:

"The suits make a difference. I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without these suits. I hope next year. I hope it's really soon."

As I watch all of this and read about the uproar, I can't help wondering what the big deal is. Yes, the suits make you go faster. But so did the full body suits originally used in 2000 and before them, the Speedo that Mark Spitz wore in 1972, when compared to the full body knitwear that swimmers wore in the early 1900s. Hell, female competitive swimmers wore suits with skirts until 1974!

Technological advances come to every sport. No one is talking about banning composite poles in pole vaulting despite the fact that they allowed vaulters to crush records set with wooden poles. Is anyone screaming that Roger Federer should be forced to use a wooden racquet rather than his carbon fiber racquet? Of course not.

If FINA really wanted to take the technology out of the equation, we'd be seeing naked 100 meter freestyle at the Olympics, a sight that would no doubt boost TV ratings and make competitive swimming MUCH more popular during non-Olympic years. Of course, the $400 polyurethane suits do occasionally and unexpectedly show off a bit more of the swimmer than expected, such as the case with Ricky Berens and Flavia Zoccari (heads up...these are NSFW images).

The fact is, the suits are completely legal right now and the records are going to stand for some time to come. The idea of adding an asterix next to the records set with these new suits is ludicrous. Unlike performance enhancing drugs, which are illegal not only in sports but in general public, these suits are available to anyone who wants to wear them. I applaud Michael Phelps' loyalty to Speedo, a company that made him a millionaire many times over, but I can't get too worked up for his second-place finish simply because someone else found a better suit and put it on. I think Biedermann had it exactly right when, following his victory, he commented on the suit controversy:

"It's not my problem. It's the problem of FINA. They should handle it really fast."

But imposing the ban now? Too late. Those swimmers have already left the starting blocks.

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