A new swimsuit is ruining swimming! Again!

Michael Phelps lost a major race for the first time in four years. Was his opponent's suit really to blame?

By Vincent Rossmeier
Published July 29, 2009 12:30PM (EDT)

Tuesday was not a good day for Michael Phelps. The 2008 U.S. Olympic champion lost a major race for the first time in four years, but he and his coach, Bob Bowman, think they know why: his competitor's suit.

Germany's relatively unknown Paul Biedermann bested Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle, setting a world record of one minute, 42 seconds, that was almost a full second faster than the record Phelps set at last year's Beijing Olympics. Yet, Biedermann's victory has caused a wave of controversy across the swimming world because he was wearing a high-tech, polyurethane, rubber-coated bodysuit called the Arena X-Glide. Phelps, on the other hand, was wearing a Speedo LZR Racer.

Biedermann was quick to acknowledge that his suit played a significant role in his win. "The suits make a difference," he said. "I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without these suits. I hope next year. I hope it's really soon."

But Bowman was irate that FINA, the international body that oversees the sport, allows swimmers to wear a suit that gives them such an unfair advantage over other athletes. Bowman is now considering having Phelps boycott all international races until 2010, when FINA has said the Arena X-Glide and polyurethane suits like it, will be banned. "Probably expect Michael not to swim until they are implemented," Bowman said. "I'm done with this. It has to be implemented immediately. The sport is in shambles right now and they better do something or they're going to lose their guy who fills these seats."

That Bowman and Phelps would react so strongly to a racer using an innovative suit to improve his time is somewhat ironic considering that the full-body Speedo Phelps wears has been said by swimming experts to give swimmers an unfair competitive edge. Swimming records were broken at an unprecedented rate in Beijing and there seems to be a strong correlation between the rapid advances in swimsuit design and faster times.

Swimmers say that suits like the X-Glide and the LZR Racer help an athlete's buoyancy in the water, keeping them higher as they stroke. But a debate about whether new swimsuit technology is ruining competitive swimming has been swirling for over 40 years.

Early Olympic swimmers wore tank-top outfits that resemble today's full-body suits but were not nearly as sleek and aerodynamic. Male swimmers then began to go shirtless when they discovered that shaved skin allowed them to encounter less resistance in the water.

However, the first dramatic swimsuit transformation came in 1974, when tight-fitting Lycra suits were introduced. The same year, female swimmers began to sport suits without skirts in competition.

As records began to fall, swimsuit design continued to progress. At the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta, Ga., Speedo put out its "Aquablade" suit, which reduced resistance while covering more of both male and female swimmers' bodies. Seventy-seven percent of the medal winners in Atlanta wore the Aquablade.

Speedo then bettered itself by introducing the Fastskin, which covered even more of a swimmer's body. In 2000, USA Swimming approved the use of full-body suits in races. In 1999 and 2000, Speedo's full-body, sharkskin-like suits caused a stir in the pool as leading coaches warned that it was making it too easy for swimmers to shatter world records. And as evidenced by the X-Glide and LZR Racer, since 2000 suits have only gotten more sleek.

Clearly, the days of Mark Spitz swimming in a simple Speedo without so much as a cap over his hair are long gone.

Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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