When high-tech swimsuits were used in the 2009 world championships, they indeed artificially enhanced athlete performance, according to a new study.
Research from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine suggests that the full-body, polyurethane swimsuits used by top swimmers in 2009 indeed played a "significant role" in an unprecedented year in which 43 new world records were set.
It seems sports apparel companies like Speedo were too good at developing performance-enhancing technology. (The suits were quickly banned by the Fédération Internationale de Natation, or FINA, in 2010.)
According to data collected by Lanty O’Connor and others, there was more than hard work at play in those record-setting meets.
To determine the impact of the swimsuits, O'Connor studied publicly available race data from 1990 to 2010 and compared improvements in swimming to improvements in track and field, a similar sport played on land.
Despite accounting for improvements in training science, changes in rules and regulations, gender differences, anaerobic versus aerobic events, unique talent and membership data, O'Connor found that the suits reduced drag, improved buoyancy and compressed the muscles -- unnatural effects that led to faster times.
Since the ban, just two world records were set and overall swim times have been slower.
"It would be unfair to discredit the dedication and training of these athletes and their coaches, because this certainly played a role in improved performance over the past several decades," O’Connor said. "But many, including FINA, had a strong suspicion that these suits were artificially enhancing performance. Now, nearly two years later, we have the data to show a strong correlation between the use of these suits and improved race times."
Of course, the research doesn't offer any easy solutions to the ethical limits of how far an athlete should go to gain an edge -- and the picture will no doubt get murkier as pharmaceuticals and human-to-machine interfaces continue to blur the line between natural improvement and artificial enhancement.
The research was published in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.