It's harder to tune out the records in sports where the scoreboard is a clock or a meter stick—which is why those sports are inherently less popular. But if you do build your business on breaking records, it's best to be judicious about it. Sergei Bubka, the greatest pole vaulter of all time, set nearly three dozen world records in his career, indoors and outdoors—often out-jumping his previous records by a single centimeter, to leave room for future triumph.
Swimming, by contrast, is stuck with a Barry Bonds-like wealth of enhanced numbers. If the sport does go back to normal suits and normal times next year, Rome 2009 and Paul Biedermann will mark the pinnacle of achievement for untold years to come. FINA can try salting the record books with asterisks—but if 100 percent polyurethane is retroactively bogus, what about Phelps' 50-percent polyurethane LZR from Beijing? Or it can just give up the ban on fancy suits and resume the arms race till the swimmers all have propellers in their behinds and hydrofoils attached to their pectorals. (One of the suits in Rome is already called the Adidas Hydrofoil.)
The sport's infatuation with the clock led it to ignore the importance of the calendar. Swimming is one of the sports that nobody wants to hear about in non-Olympic years. Caught up in the momentum of Beijing—and the surging market for $500 swimsuits—FINA allowed an off-year championship to become a showcase for out-of-control technology.
Phelps' eight medals were partly to blame for the mess. But Phelps displayed better instincts than the people who run his sport. As soon as the Olympics were behind him, he got out of the pool for a while, smoked pot, and chased women. For this, he was made the object of a moral panic and slapped with a three-month suspension. And the sport kept churning along without him toward its current fiasco. Take a hint from your best athlete, FINA, and take it easy. Stop trying to get attention when it doesn't matter, and maybe we'll care about you again in three years, in London.