The Swimsuit Arms Race

Science, technology, and life.
May 21 2009 9:59 AM

The Swimsuit Arms Race

It looks like those high-tech swimsuits that have been breaking world records for the last couple of years might finally be banned.

Is that a good thing?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Advertisement

FINA , the world's swimming competition authority, has just begun to issue rulings on which suits can or can't be worn in races. The criteria are thickness, buoyancy, and permeability . Let's consider the arguments for regulation, as put forth this week in Agence France Presse and the New York Times .

Reason No. 1: They tilt the playing field. This is the standard metaphor for fairness in sports. Swimsuit regulation should put all athletes " on a level playing field ," says one top racer.

This argument makes sense only because the new suits are expensive, costing hundreds of dollars. If the prices came down to where everyone could afford them, I don't see a problem . Nobody bans composite tennis racquets just because they're better than aluminum.

Reason No. 2: They cancel out talent gaps. The suits are "enabling athletes of lesser ability to compete on equal terms with the best-conditioned, hardest-working athletes in the sport. That is why the mandate for change was clear," a FINA executive tells the Times . A top swimmer complains: "A lot of old records that were really, really good are being taken down by people you never heard of."

This argument sounds confused. Why is it wrong to let swimmers of "lesser ability" compete "on equal terms"? Isn't that a way of leveling the playing field? Are the traditional top swimmers the "hardest-working" ones? Or are they just genetically lucky? And aren't the swimmers "you never heard of" the ones least likely to have the money for fancy suits? What's so righteous about freezing them out?

Reason No. 3: They change the sport. They "make a muscled and stocky body as streamlined as a long and lean one," the Times observes. "With the body riding high on the water like a racing hull, it changes a swimmer's relationship with the water, influencing everything from how vigorously the swimmer has to kick to the rhythm of the stroke."

So what? Metal and composite racquets did the same thing to tennis. Pads have changed who can play football. Equipment alters the body requirements for sports all the time. Often, in retrospect, we like the change, in part because it opens the game to a wider range of people.

Reason No. 4: They're consuming the sport. "In 2008, an unprecedented 108 world records were set, the majority by athletes wearing the [LZR] suit made by Speedo," the Times notes. This year, "18 world records have been broken by swimmers wearing suits with fewer panels and seams and more polyurethane" than the LZR. Last year, Speedo was the big story, but by the latest count, "22 manufacturers ... have entered the swimsuit race."

To me, this is the most powerful argument for cracking down. It's no longer a question of helping everyone buy the 2008 LZR, as I naively proposed last year. As the Associated Press notes , that suit has already " been outstripped by polyurethane models ." The decisive race today isn't between the swimmers; it's between those 22 manufacturers. When the engineers are overshadowing the swimmers, the sport isn't just changing. It's disappearing.

"It's the athlete that is making the difference. The suit is not breaking the records," one swimmer tells AFP. But that's not true. The new suits are turning the same athletes from losers into winners:

[Rafael] Muñoz, a 21-year-old Spaniard, did not advance past the preliminary heats in the 100 butterfly at the Olympics in August, but this year ... [h]e has lowered his time from Beijing more than two seconds, to 50.46, which is two-hundredths faster than what Michael Phelps swam in winning the gold. Then there is the 24-year-old Brazilian Henrique Barbosa, who finished seventh in his preliminary heat in the Olympics in the 100-meter breaststroke in 1:01.11. Nine months later, with his hulking 6-foot-4 frame wedged into one of the new suits, he posted the fastest time in the world this year, a 59.03.

This is a controlled experiment: The same athletes, with less than a year to improve their conditioning, are cutting their times precipitously, thanks to innovations in suit technology.

If you want to pick a good suit and put everybody in it, fine. But we can't have an ongoing arms race among manufacturers that determines all the records and who sets them.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Why Time Is on Our Side in the Fight Against Ebola

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

Catacombs Where You Can Stroll Down Hallways Lined With Corpses

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The U.S. Has a New Problem in Syria: The Moderate Rebels Feel Like We’ve Betrayed Them

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Trending News Channel
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  News & Politics
Crime
Oct. 1 2014 4:15 PM The Trials of White Boy Rick A Detroit crime legend, the FBI, and the ugliness of the war on drugs.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 1 2014 4:55 PM Blood Before Bud? Must a gentleman’s brother always be the best man at his wedding?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 3:02 PM The Best Show of the Summer Is Getting a Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 4:46 PM Ebola Is No Measles. That’s a Good Thing. Comparing this virus to scourges of the past gives us hope that we can slow it down.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?