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. Follow him on Twitter.

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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.