Suit Madness

Hosted by

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

One of Olympic swimming's all-time greats Janet Evans states that her beloved sport is in grave danger of becoming a mockery. Long-time U.S. head swim coach Mark Schubert fears the gravitas of the sport has been threatened to the point of losing its status as the cornerstone of the Olympic Games. Michael Phelps' coach cries out that the history of their sport has been tossed out like rotten garbage.

All this furor because the newly designed suits just used in the World Championships in Rome have torpedoed bodies down the pool at astonishing speeds. In a sport where world records these days are broken by the difference of a fingernail's touch on the underwater wall pads by as little as a thousandth of a second, indiscernible to the naked eye, a crazy, whopping, unfathomable 43 world records fell in Rome. That would be perhaps akin to 20 Major League pitchers throwing no-hitters in one weekend because some new ball design suddenly created less air resistance and made for pitch speeds of 130 miles per hour. Last summer in Beijing, only 25 world records fell. We have to use the qualifier…ONLY 25 world records, which would in most circumstances be a big number….because these recent 43 (in one week!) is astronomical! In a post-Olympic year, when some of the greats have retired and others are somewhat low-key and laying low until time comes to ratchet it up for London 2012, it is abundantly clear that it is these new suits that have Frankensteined the lion's share of these 43 new standards. And what the powers of the sport worry deeply about is that, now that the suits have been as quickly banned as they surfaced just last month, it will be a long, long time until swimmers can actually swim this fast on their own, without the suits.

Naturally, just as runners on a track or cars on an oval move faster through the air by being more aerodynamic, boats and swimmers move faster across a surface of water as well as under water by being more hydrodynamic. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the designs of America's Cup sailing boats to create less drag on those hulls in the ocean. In swimming, until now, less drag has been attained by two means. One is natural physique. Just as a high jumper typically has long legs and a very high center of gravity, most world-class swimmers carry the bulk of their weight in their upper bodies. A running back with short, thickly-muscled legs is going to create tremendous drag in the water. Secondly, the talent for feeling the water and developing a stroke that lifts the swimmer's body higher means that body is cruising down the pool in a more efficacious, hydrodynamic position. And then shaving and matting down hair with smooth, tight caps has lessened drag, too. Watching Michael Phelps, his back fully visible on the surface, is a thing of beauty. But these new suits, comprised largely of polyurethane, not only have no textile weave, which means no drag by water absorption, they also create artificial buoyancy, meaning anybody who wears them automatically rises in the water much higher than they normally do.

Some argue that the suit controversy has thrust a sport that suffers from zero exposure in non-Olympic times into blaring headlines and that's a fortunate thing. But, just as we rarely see Track and Field world records after the steroid-prompted wave of the 80's, and that just may be why we don't follow Track and Field much any more, it's a shame that all these new records were set under unfair circumstances. The new dictate is that, as of this coming January 1, these suits will be outlawed. But will the 43 records be erased from the books?

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Banner image: Michael Phelps at the 2009 Fina World Championships in Rome, Italy. Photo: Florian Eisele



Diana Nyad