Thinking Tech

Swimmer or swimsuit? Without tech, records fell

Posting in Design

Just not as many.

Image via Jaked

Imagine a ship traveling through the water. If the front end sits higher in the water than the back end, it's not going to travel as fast as it would otherwise. Now, imagine a swimmer traveling through the water. If he tires (as one will at the end of a race), his hips are going to start sinking and he won't be able to maintain the same sort of speed that he did at the beginning of the race, when he had more energy and could ride higher in the water. In so few words, that's what the now-illegal high-tech swimsuits allowed swimmers to do: float when they started sinking.

In the beginning of 2008, leading swimsuit manufacturer Speedo introduced the LZR (pronounced laser) Racer. Made of 50 percent polyurethane and designed with help by NASA, the suit was hailed as an innovative technological breakthrough in the swimming world. That it was: 25 world records fell in Beijing, and the majority of them were broken by athletes wearing LZRs. The swimmers that didn't wear LZRs wore similar suits of a different brand.

Already, this was enough for people to sit up and take note--was this enhancing or detracting from the sport? But Beijing was just the beginning. By summer 2009, two more companies had taken it a step further: designed 100 percent polyurethane suits. That August, 43 world records fell at the World Championships in Rome. FINA, swimming's international governing body, decided that enough was enough and banned all tech suits. Not only do racing suits now have to be made solely of "textile" fabric, but they cannot extend past the knees. For men, they can't cover any surface above the belly button either.

After the suits were banned, there was much speculation as to whether records would keep falling. And for the past few years, it seemed as if people had reason to worry: going into London, a mere two records had fallen since the suits were banned. But last week, the swimmers proved otherwise. Nine world records were broken, very comparable to the number broken at Games before the suit era.

The way the "suits debate" has unfolded over the past few years offers an important lesson when it comes to establishing the line of how much of a role technology should play in sports. There are still some that argue the suits are just mental, and ask "how can a suit make that much of a difference?" I can tell you--based on personal experience and empirical data--that they do. But London proved that those suits did not, in fact, turn the swimmers that wore them into invincible robots. The new world record holders demonstrated that hard work, competitive drive, careful race strategy, desire, and a little bit of luck still have an edge on technology. As new 200 backstroke world record holder Missy Franklin told the Chicago Tribune, "we wanted to show people it wasn't the suit that makes the swimmer."

[via Chicago Tribune]

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Jenny Wilson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Jenny Wilson is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has written for Time.com and Swimming World Magazine and served stints at The American Prospect and The Atlantic Monthly magazines. She is currently pursuing a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure