In early July, Italian swimmer Flavia Zoccari became both a metaphor and an omen for FINA, swimming's international governing body. Just before a race at the Mediterranean Games, Zoccari's high-tech Jaked bodysuit burst open in the rear, forcing her to drop out of competition.
Four weeks later, that's the state of the whole sport: All its embarrassing bits are hanging out, exposed by the newest generation of swimwear. At the world championships in Rome, swimmers are cramming into speed-engineered, air-trapping, water-impermeable suits like the Jaked that have been kicking the sport's record book to soggy shreds. More world records were set in the first five days of the meet than in the entire Beijing Olympics.
"I really believe all the new suits should be banned," Germany's Paul Biedermann said after he and his polyurethane Arena X-Glide suit broke Ian Thorpe's seven-year-old record in the 400-meter freestyle. By his own reckoning, the suit had been "worth about two seconds."
FINA announced it would come through with a ban on full-body suits—but not till 2010, and still pending wrangling over the meaning of the word textiles. In the meantime, records keep falling in Rome. The BBC's online listing of the new record-holders includes each one's model of swimsuit, with an asterisk for competitors wearing anything less than 100 percent polyurethane.
Michael Phelps, contractually stuck with the Speedo LZR that helped him dominate in Beijing, has been recast as an aquatic John Henry, a mortal man competing against implacable technology. Laboring in his now-obsolescent swimsuit, he finished more than a second behind Biedermann's bodysuit in the 200-meter freestyle, then battled back with a win and a new record of his own in the 200 butterfly.
Swimming has long relied on flimflam to inflate interest. The whole structure of a swim meet is an exercise in creative accounting: No other sport gives out so many separate medals for doing minor variations on the same thing. In Beijing, Phelps got one gold medal for swimming 200 meters in 1:42.96. Then he got another gold medal for swimming 200 meters in 1:52.03. Then he got yet another gold medal for swimming 200 meters in 1:54.23. Freestyle, butterfly, freestyle-butterfly medley—different strokes for the same old folks. It was as if, having sprinted 100 meters for the gold, Usain Bolt could have followed up by winning the 100-meter skip, the 100-meter bunny hop, and the 100-meter moonwalk.
The more mildly different ways there are to race, the more mildly different ways there are to break records. "We're the most popular boring sport in the world and so we need and only survive on records," Austrian swimmer Markus Rogan said the other day. "So we're going to need whatever we can do to keep doing records."
Rogan was trying to defend the fast suits. But he was invoking a humiliating truth about swimming: Swimmers compete against the record book because nobody cares who wins a competition among swimmers. In Beijing, Phelps' only consistent adversary was the "world record line," that TV-land projection that indicates whether a swimmer is going faster than anyone has swum before. He was literally racing against the clock.
The health of a sport is inversely proportional to how interested people are in seeing its records broken. Michael Jordan never seriously threatened to surpass Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game, but people liked seeing him score 55 just fine. You can watch a lot of pro football without hearing anyone mention Norm Van Brocklin; the goal of the NFL is to get you believing that the game in front of you is the most important contest in the history of human conflict (this includes preseason games).
Even in baseball, the celebrated numbers have mostly been used to add some intrigue during the slow parts. The steroid-deformed home-run sideshow between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 was a sad attempt by baseball to compensate for canceling the 1994 World Series—and a symptom of more bad news on its way.