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Why High-Tech Swimsuits Are Still A Problem

The controversy over high-tech swimsuits reached its tipping point a few months ago when officials finally decided to ban them as of 2010. But the damage has been done and swimming as a sport has been tainted forever.

Where it all started

High-tech bodysuits were first introduced to Olympic swimming in the year 2000 when the Games came to Sydney (remember Thorpedo?). At the time, it was the biggest year for world records in the history of Olympic swimming; 62 world records were smashed. Then in 2008, an unprecedented 79 world records were broken by swimmers wearing one suit: the Speedo LZR Racer. Some argued that it was normal. Others began pointing fingers at the suit.

How they work

Let’s have a closer look at Speedo’s LZR Racer. Speedo partnered up with NASA and the Australian Institute of Sport to create this high-tech supersuit. They tested more than 90 different fabrics, scanned over 400 athletes to pinpoint areas of high friction on the body and then built an ultra lightweight suit with strategically placed polyurethane panels to minimise drag by 5% and suck muscles into the perfect shape (whatever that may be). A “compression zone” around the torso (think of a corset) and other parts of the body serves to improve buoyancy and reduce muscle vibration, allowing the swimmer to conserve more energy. In a sport where victory is measured by hundredths of a second, it could mean the difference between a medal and no medal. Michael Phelps, who is sponsored by Speedo, said, “When I hit the water [in the LZR Racer] , I feel like a rocket.” And as we all know, it was enough for him to win the 100m Butterfly final at the Beijing Olympics by a mere 0.01 second:

Winning is more important than money
Speedo offered to make the suit available to all swimmers, regardless of apparel loyalties. Japanese competitors defected to the LZR suit, knowing that any contractual obligations wouldn’t be enforced — doing so would be commercial suicide: If the swimmers lost, the companies would be to blame.

But FINA also allowed rivals to copy the the LZR Racer without fear of being sued by Speedo. And so the swimsuit arms race began. Arena was the first to follow Speedo with a prototype that pushed the definition of tight-fitting fabric. Adidas scrambled to come up with comparable designs. In the end, Speedo—with the priceless endorsement of Michael Phelps—won the race hand over fist: 94% of all swimming races won and 23 out of 25 world records broken were achieved by swimmers wearing Speedo’s miracle suit.

In the end, FINA had two viable options: Allow every country to wear it in violation of their existing equipment contracts, or ban them all. They went with the latter.

So, what’s the problem?

1. Interpreting the rules
Swimmers have never been allowed to use or wear a device that could enhance performance, yet that is precisely what these high-tech suits claim to do. Speedo says their LZR Racer suit, developed “in strict accordance with FINA rules and regulations”, improves a swimmer’s performance by 3%. The new rules state that only “textiles” can be used, but that’s a pretty loose term that can be interpreted in any number of ways. With technology constantly evolving, where do you draw the line?

2. Is it cheating?
Many coaches and officials have equated the suit issue with the doping problems that plagued the sport in decades gone past. What’s the difference between gaining an advantage with a swimsuit and gaining an advantage by taking performance-enhancing drugs? Purists argue that artificially enhancing the performances of swimmers with these high-tech suits amounts to “technological doping”. Australian swimming coach Forbes Carlile campaigned for bodysuits to be banned, saying, “The game was up, it’s chaos, disruption and false records. The sport has lost its way.”

3. Records Will Stand

Records achieved in this suit will be allowed to stand. That means swimmers competing events beyond the start of the ban will have to measure themselves against records set in these supersuits. Michael Phelps once said in an interview: “If we do go back a couple years for swimsuit technology, some of those records may not get broken ever again.” The debate over whether to put an asterisk on records achieved in high-tech suits is hardly a solution.

4. Spirit of the Games

The Japan Times sums it up perfectly:

Not everyone is comfortable with the winning-is-everything ethos. According to the original charter of the modern games, participation is the ultimate good thing. However, the rise of global media and the resulting involvement of a worldwide audience has turned the Olympics from a “festival for peace” into a showcase for superhuman abilities.

The new rules

In July 2009, FINA unanimously voted to ban them all. As of next year, swimsuits that cover the neck, shoulders or ankles will be banned. Suits to be used from 1 January 2010 must be submitted for approval by 1 November 2009, and any future submissions will have to be made 12 months in advance of a major event.

Playing with balls is Gizmodo AU’s week-long look at the technology behind the sports we love, from the jerseys to the balls and everything in between. Go the superfishies!

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