The 2008 Olympics have barely begun, and already eight records in swimming have tumbled. Some are not just falling, but being broken by improbable margins. In the men's 4x100m relay, for instance, the record was smashed by an astounding four seconds. In April, at the world championships in Manchester England, eight more records were broken.
All these record-breaking swimmers had one thing in common. They were wearing Speedo's new swimsuit, the "Fastskin" LZR Racer.
The LZR Racer breathes high tech. Speedo designed the suit with input from NASA, ran tests on more than 100 different fabrics, and conducted body scans of world-class swimmers. The ultra-thin suit material repels water, reduces muscle oscillations, and lowers hydrodynamic drag by up to 10%. The individual panels are ultrasonically welded together, rather than stitched. Speedo even claims it increases a swimmer's oxygen efficiency. It can take 30 minutes for a swimmer to struggle into it and, once on, shoehorns the body into a more aerodynamic shape.
The first time the suit was put on in an official meet, three world records were broken.
Many would say Speedo's breakthrough product has an undeniable benefit. But it also has its detractors. It is rumored to add buoyancy, something which would break competitive rules. It's also very expensive -- $500 apiece, and professional swimmers must replace it every 10th swim.
Worse, many teams and individual swimmers have contractual obligations which bar them from wearing the Racer. According to some, this gives an unfair competitive advantage. Alberto Castagnetti, coach of the Italian swim team -- which wears a rival brand -- calls the suit "technological doping". Australian coach Forbes Carlisle has written an open letter calling for it to be banned outright.
Speedo VP Stuart Isaac says technological progress aiding to break records is a natural process. "That’s the nature of sport, whether it’s tennis rackets or golf clubs or new running shoes or the composition of running tracks".
Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe, who was wearing the LZR Racer today when she broke the world record in the women's 100-meter backstroke, says swimming must keep up with technology. "It's a great suit. For me, putting the suit on, mentally, it's time to go fast". Michael Phelps, who also wears the suit, stands to win a cool $1 million from Speedo if he breaks the Olympic record of seven gold medals in swimming. He calls the suit a "rocket".
Advances in training and new swimming pool designs are also aiding the quest to break records. But none of these bears the controversy of Speedo's revolutionary baby. The suit was approved by FINA, the international body governing swimming, which says claims about added buoyancy are "unproven". Heeding calls to ban the suit now would be considered arbitrary. Allowing other racers to wear the suit despite endorsement contracts would require other manufacturers to tacitly admit their products are inferior.
Certainly no decision will be made until after the 2008 Olympics end. Until then, expect to see those on the podium wearing the familiar shark-colored swimsuit.