Swimmers set a previously unimaginable 43 world records at the World Championships last month in Rome.
No one is accusing them of using performance-enhancing drugs. Everyone knows why they were going so fast—their new high-tech, full-body swimsuits, which have made kayaks of everyone wearing them.
Or, as past Olympic champion Janet Evens told a stunned swim media during the record onslaught, the new suits have “made a mockery of the sport.”
“It’s definitely an open wound in swimming right now,” Carrie Nixon told me on the phone. When Carrie was growing up in Ouray in the 1990s she won 10 Colorado state championships and set numerous state records. “All of which have been broken,” she said with a smile in her voice.
Now Nixon is assistant coach for the men’s and women’s swimming and diving at the University of Wisconsin. Last year her swimmers put on the new neoprene suits, and they got noticeably faster. “At first you didn’t know,” Carrie said, “if you were setting a personal best because you worked hard or because of the suit.”
Now we know, the suits were a big part of it. In calendar year 2008, when the super-slick, extra-buoyant suits from Arena and Jaked became available, 200 world records were broken. Over the previous 30 years (1978-2008) 190 records fell, an average of just over six per year.
The suits themselves don’t float, Carrie told me. But because they are impermeable (“They feel like a very thin wetsuit.”), they trap a layer of air next to the skin, making the swimmer ride higher in the water, reducing drag, so that “your motor powers you faster.”
At this year’s NCAA championships in Seattle, Nixon witnessed an interesting experiment. “All of the IM (individual medley) guys showed up in little tiny Lycra briefs, Speedos. They had a hard time finding any. But they wanted to see what would happen if they all swam the finals in briefs rather than their body suits. The world record for the event is something like 1 minute, 52 seconds. The guy expected to win had a personal best of 1:54. We all stood around the pool deck and guessed that in briefs he’d do 1:56.
“The announcers got into it. They said it was going to be the world’s best time this year ‘in briefs!’ He won in 2:01. Take the suit off, you’re seven seconds slower than your personal best.”
The difference is so huge, it’s thrown the sport and its governing body, FINA, for a loop. “The major thing,” according to Carrie, “is it happened too quickly. FINA wasn’t ready for all the record breaking, or the media reaction.” Others say FINA botched or hurried (maybe even corrupted) the approval process for the new materials.
And so now the suits will be banned. High school and college competitions will not allow them as of Oct. 1. FINA first said it would ban the suits starting Jan. 1, 2010, but it is waffling—ostensibly to give its committees time to define a “legal fabric,” but also to give the manufacturers, who funnel tons of money into the sport, time to retool.
It’s a fairness issue, Carrie says. If everyone had on the same suit “you’d be back to square one—the swimmers and their training.” But everyone doesn’t, in part because the new suits cost up to $900 each. And they’re fragile; you can tear one just pulling it on. “Schools, colleges, that can’t afford the $100,000 you need for competition suits would face the decision of shutting the program down. Because without the suits you won’t be competitive.”
Lots of people aren’t happy with the emergency decision to ban the technology. Markus Rogan, an Austrian breaststroker at the World Championships said, “I’m really in favor of the suits, because we’re the most popular boring sport in the world, and so we need and only survive on records. So we’re going to need whatever we can do to keep doing records.”
A part of Carrie Nixon agrees. “We’ve gained so much momentum in the U.S. in the last couple of years. To lose that will be hard. [Without the suits] some of these records won’t be touched for 20 years. How do we motivate the kids coming up?” She also worries about the likelihood of increased doping in a future where “all of a sudden you’re eight seconds off world-record time instead of one second.”
So, what should swimming do? Put asterisks on the recent records as Major League Baseball threatens to do with home run records set during “the steroid era?”
Are the new suits the ethical equivalent of doping to improve performance? Or are they closer in nature to the ongoing development of faster skis and lighter bicycles? Technology marches on. There’s no stopping it. “It’s a shame,” Carrie sighed. “This was really the first major advance in swimwear since they took the skirt off women’s suits 60 years ago.”
Couldn’t somebody figure out a way, “socialist” as it sounds, to put a fast suit on everybody?