The controversy over the new technosuits doesn’t seem to be going away. If anything the debate is starting to build up to a fevered pitch. Over at Floswimming things started getting ugly when one reader got personal and hurled the same words an individual used to indicate his contempt for the LZR Racer right back at him for standing in the way of the “inevitable”. Hundreds of thousands of words are being spilled in the fray, and famous names of swimming’s past and present are lining up on both sides in a conflict looking more and more like it may break out at any time into cries of “Luddites!” and waving pitchforks clashing with shouts of “Heretics!” and bobbing scythes. I find myself disagreeing even with long time associates, and while we may not agree on this one matter I’ve always found their opinions to be both logical and well reasoned before now. We need to accept there are two sides to any debate. We must take a deep breath and approach this concern, one which is having an impact nearly as large as the horrible, ongoing scourge of performance enhancing drugs, in a calm and civil manner with open minds.
So in that spirit, and after deep consideration of all the facts, I will say all those who support the continued use of the new suits such as the LZR Racer are categorically, and without a shred of doubt, completely and utterly wrong. Really - absolutely dead wrong.
Just look at both sides’ arguments and you'll see the truth of the matter.
The biggest argument of the new swimsuit aficionados (the “Technophiles”) are that the suits merely represent the next step of naturally occurring technical advances going on for nearly a hundred years, several having just as a dramatic impact on swimming times then as the present suits are making now. They're absolutely wrong, but at least the error comes from the mistaken belief mere observation conveys understanding. Change, being a constant in life, is always with us. So it is comprehending why change has occurred and its implications is what's truly important. In this case swimming’s own technology driven advances to date have come about not because of any direct attempt to make swimmers themselves faster but rather from a focus aimed at eliminating outside influences. Progressing from fine woolen swimsuits to nylon and then to Lycra polymer blends – an effort to bring swimsuits as close as possible to swimming without a suit; from lane ropes and solid pool walls to energy absorbing lane lines and wave free gutters – to eliminate interference from adjacent lanes and walls; deeper pools – to minimize surface turbulence resulting from shallow water; improved lighting and reduced water turbidity – to provide unimpaired vision; improved water temperature control – to eliminate the effects of variable temperature on performance; and goggles – to protect the swimmer’s eyes from the harsh effects of chlorinated water. And why do I know this to be true? Because up to very recently we have not had sufficient grasp of technology¹ to actually make faster swimmers, only the ability to minimize those things about the water which slow us down. But now with the new technosuits we can directly address a swimmer’s individual performance. The paradigm from which the sport has advanced itself has shifted in a major way.
The major objection coming from those against the introduction of new suits’ (the “Purists”) are the shocking drops seen in elite racing’s overall times; creating concerns the suits are more device than suit, otherwise known as ‘tech-doping’, a manipulation of an individual’s true swimming ability. If correct, Purists reason, the suits are illegal under existing FINA rules and consequently should be banned outright. The Technophiles strenuously disagree with this accusation. They counter FINA has already looked into this question and ruled swim suits are not devices. Yet that particular ruling came several years ago and the difference between old and new is profound enough to have people refer to the old style suits derisively (or wistfully depending one's viewpoint) as “fabric” suits. The possibility of being labeled a device is sufficiently threatening to force Speedo and its captive organizations to give out talking points to avoid mentioning performance gains from wearing the suits; the gag order put in place despite Speedo’s advertising continuing to boast a 2% improvement in speed will be seen by its wearers. An elite swimmer under assurance of anonymity said this about the LZR Racer, "I can't say this openly so please do not use my name. We have been under a lot of pressure to always say good things about the suit. We were also told by xxxxx (a national federation) to deny that there was anything very different about this suit compared to another. That's bullshit, of course. It makes us faster and we all know it. Personally, I wear it because it helps me keep up, I feel great in it in the water ...." The debate whether the suit is a device or not is not just a fleeting concern over semantics, or even over performance. Devices could be banned from competition just for the reason they provide unequal benefits, much less artificially boost speed. Seeing the extraordinary steps taken to quell any talk related to the performance boost from wearing the new suits do you think Speedo believes its LZR Racer is not a device? Is there really any doubt?
Another fault often cited by Purists is the high cost of the new technology: the Speedo LZR Racer costs over $500 and lasts for maybe a dozen or less swims. They argue the associated costs must inevitably create a divide in the swimming world between the relative few who can afford the expense and the majority who can't. This uncontested concern extends far beyond individual families. The financial drain on even American universities, the cornerstone of competitive swimming in the United States, has prompted Speedo to offer special discount rates for conference and NCAA championships. Even with these limited discounts some universities have to devote large percentages of their budgets to purchasing enough of the suits to remain competitive during the regular season. And then there are those colleges, as there are families, who can’t afford the expense even with the discounts. Purists argue the advanced suits are creating an underclass based on economics rather than talent, implying adoption of the suits drags down both fair competition and the numbers swimming competitively.
The Technophiles ultimately, however, disagree with this harsh outlook. They submit competition will eventually bring down costs and therefore minimize any damage. Again this is a false assumption – leading edge high tech competition in small, niche sports markets never see reduced costs. If we are to take our examples from the America’s Cup or Formula One costs often climb in what could best be described as a financial sinkhole of ever better technology. We are seeing the application of a new technology with apparently phenomenal potential. Manufacturers who have never before sold a single swimsuit will able to step in and take away the entire market with one breakthrough innovation, sending the rest who’ve sunk millions into research and development back to their CAD software to start all over again. Product life cycles may only last months at this early stage of development. For the necessary capital investment the market is too small to defer passing along the associated risk premium to the consumer. We’ll have to pay for it all. No less an authority as the sporting goods giant Nike has spoken on this. With no stomach for the coming suit wars after weighing the risks and potential profits of staying in they’re walking away now. Adidas is also said to be considering quitting the sport.
Technophiles offer another defense for the new generation swim suits – that they are an effective way to promote the sport. Linking the increase in media attention to the new world records they assert the world records enabled by the suits (over the schizophrenic objections of Speedo of course) raise swimming’s popularity. But this belief is a grotesque oversimplification of the impact world records have on this or any other sport. Stars are what attracts and holds fans, what we identify with and idolize. For those sports possessing world records the records themselves merely identify who are the stars. In large part world records gain their special status because of their rarity and some are rarer than others. Like precious gems too many means diluted values however pretty. I would dare say most of the current interest is more idle curiosity about the speed suits which have created all these new world records than in the records themselves. Any interest new records bring will be just as long lasting as the latest electronic gadget. Amongst the sporting world cognoscente, a much more knowledgeable breed, the avalanche of world records has brought about an altogether different perception of our sport. No, the technophiles are definitely wrong about the positive impact all these world records are having. What has really captured the public’s imagination is swimming now boasts a superstar of its own, Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals. That’s who they hold in such great esteem and what brings swimming the global attention it now enjoys. The last time we had a similar surge in popularity was with Mark Spitz and his seven races, seven golds and seven world records. But it’s important to note no one is mentioning Phelps’ seven world records. They’re clearly passé in today’s reality.
Better, the lie world records promote their sport can be shown by a real world example. A decade ago Major League Baseball subtly encouraged its athletes to use performance enhancing drugs to build up their statistics and thus draw in larger paying crowds. Yet when the fans started to understand how some of their most hallowed records were being broken the backlash was both immediate and severe. Their vocal protests and boycotts caused the Major League’s front office to hastily backtrack and prohibit the use of performance enhancing drugs as well as institute a proper drug enforcement program. Personally I don’t think the average person can make the distinction between someone taking officially acceptable steroids and someone who uses sanctioned swimsuits to swim faster. To them the new technosuits are no different than using a corked bat. Someday there will be a reaction and it won’t be favorable.
I acknowledge the fascination the new suits holds for many. Ever since someone held a shard of razor-sharp flint in his hand we've been obsessed by tools and their power. Even today social status depends in large part on what tools and possessions we control. So one would be a fool to deny the influence technology has on our society and individual lives. Nevertheless technology still has limits and nowhere are these limits better illustrated than in sport. By all means technology should be used to mitigate outside influences, but on the other hand we have to draw the line when it starts to directly affect athletic performance. We may not be able to compare the present with the past but there is no reason to think we cannot take the necessary steps to allow today’s times to be comparable to those one hundred years from now. Neither is there any reason for us to adopt new technologies which will condemn us to meaningless world records. Our sport needs all its heroes past, present, and future. Let’s take the steps to ensure they keep their rightful place in history.
¹ Noting for the record that pharmacology has been known for some time to improve individual performance.
King Aquatics coach Sean Hutchinson discusses the impact the new technosuits have had on competitive swimming and the ways he's adapting to the new reality.