Following Suit

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 10 2008 7:51 AM

Following Suit

Maybe you can ban steroids in sports because they're medically dangerous. And maybe you can ban carbon-fiber prosthetic legs because they're newfangled. But what about swimsuits? What do you do when a technology that's been around for ages—sleeker, tighter suits—becomes decisive? What can you say when the only objection to such technology is that most people can't afford it?

That's the situation today in collegiate and high-school swimming, according to Amy Shipley's enlightening report in Sunday's Washington Post . Swimmers wearing Speedo's LZR suits set 71 of the 77 new aquatic racing world records at, or just before, this year's Olympics. Now collegiate swimming programs are buying LZRs, and their competitors feel obliged to, um, follow suit. The trend extends to the high-school level, where the suits are showing up at state championship meets. Problem: LZRs cost around $500 retail. At best, with discounts, they go for about half that. And because of the fancy fabric, they wear out after just a few meets. Bottom line: Swimmers who can afford these suits will beat equally talented swimmers who can't.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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Athletic federations are divided over what to do. Two months ago, USA Swimming prohibited kids under 13 from competing in the suits. The NCAA imposed a moratorium on the suits but then withdrew it.

In general, I don't like sports equipment bans based on sheer cost. Composite tennis racquets were pricey when they first came out. Should they have been prohibited? What about golf clubs or bike frames? Innovative materials are usually expensive at the outset. The way they become cheaper is by gaining notice, spreading to a broader market, and being produced more efficiently in subsequent iterations. If you ban them, you block this process.

In the swimsuit case, it looks to me as though a logical compromise is already unfolding. What makes the suit prohibitively expensive isn't just the outlay, but the fact that it wears out so fast. The crucial number is the per-meet cost. And that number can be sharply reduced by using the suits only at championship events late in the season. This is exactly what some college programs are already doing. You don't need a Ferrari to pick up your groceries. Swim your regular meets in cheaper suits, and save your LZRs for the big events.

This policy coincides with Speedo's discount strategy. The company says it offers LZR discounts to sponsoring colleges. At conference championships, the discount is 40 percent. At the NCAA championships, it's 65 percent. The higher you go in competition, the more the suit matters, and the more worthwhile it is for the company to put you in its suit.

Don't ban the LZR. The unfairness at issue is cost, and cost is adjustable. Let's see how the players adjust before the supervisors go in with a heavy hand.