WASHINGTON -- Vindication is sweet! During last summer's Olympics, I wrote in this space that the high-tech swimming suits worn by competitive swimmers in the events and manufactured by Speedo with the assistance of NASA scientists were irrelevant to sport and destined for further controversy. In fact, I argued that the suits, known as the Speedo LZR racer, were as inappropriate for competitive swimming as wearing swim fins in the pool. Now a rising chorus of swimming coaches and competitors at this week's NCAA Division I swimming championships seems to agree.
The LZRs are made of high-tech material. They cover a competitor's body from shoulders to ankles. The material allows the body to float higher in the water. It also offers less resistance to the water than human skin, allowing those who encase themselves in it to glide through the water faster. Consequently, in championships everyone wants to wear an LZR. Those who do obviously have an unfair advantage over those who, for whatever reason, do not. Not surprisingly, since the arrival of the LZR the incidence of world records has increased -- though this does not mean that today's champions in their high-tech suits are really faster than pre-high-tech swimmers.
In fact, the use of the high-tech suits by Michael Phelps last summer casts doubt on the claim that his performance was greater than that of Mark Spitz's in 1972. Phelps won eight golds, one more than Spitz. But Spitz, wearing a pre-tech suit best described as a brief, set world records in every event he won. Phelps equaled Spitz's 7 world records, but the records he beat were set in olden times, before the advent of the LZR. It is estimated that the LZR improves a swimmer's time by at least 3%. Did Phelps best each world record by at least 3%? He did not. Spitz's Olympic performance is arguably history's best.
We can thank the inventers of this idiotic aquatic contraption for this idiotic debate. Also we must thank NCAA officials who last September decided to allow its use in intercollegiate swimming. Why did they not allow the use of swim fins too?
Now coaches are grumbling that the high-tech suits have introduced a variable into the sport that detracts from the essence of competitive swimming: stroke mechanics, rigorous training, and competitive drive. Dennis Dale, the swimming coach at the University of Minnesota, told the Wall Street Journal, "I'm very disappointed that our sport has come to a point where I have to be as concerned with swimsuits as I am with the swimmers." Said Phil Whitten, executive director of the College Swim Coaches Association: "It's like having one pole-vaulter using a fiberglass pole and another using a wooden pole. It's an absolute mess."
Moreover, the introduction of high-tech suits not only gives an advantage to those who wear them. The LZR gives a special advantage to fat swimmers -- yes, I said fat swimmers. The suits compress competitors' flesh, making their bodies more buoyant and allowing them to float higher in the water. Yet when the fat of corpulent swimmers is compressed their bodies become more buoyant than the body of a lean, dense-muscled swimmer. Thus the fatties, according to the Journal, "float higher in the water and swim faster."
Another problem is that the LZR suits are tremendously expensive. Whereas the ordinary brief that most swimmers still wear costs around $25, the LZR costs $550. Equally appalling, it is good for only a few races before it is worn out and falls apart. This adds thousands of dollars more to cost of athletic programs that might better use their money on scholarships. The LZR redirects competitive swimming from sport to technological experimentation. It causes athletic programs to place a swimmer's swimsuit above an athlete's education.
At the heart of the matter we see a clever swimsuit manufacturer expanding its profits hugely by bringing out a hitherto unimagined product. What allowed Speedo to get away with this? Doubtless the officials at the NCAA assume that they are part of history's march to progress. Well, if it is progress when swimmers wearing a high-tech swimsuit break world records, it would be even more progressive if the swimmers took up my suggestion and wore swim fins. With them the swimmers would swim even faster and at much less cost. A standard pair of fins goes for about $30, and they last for years.
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