Olympic Swimming 2012: New World Records Prove (Wo)Man's Power over Machine

Michael CarrollFeatured ColumnistAugust 2, 2012

These swimsuits worn during the 2008 Olympic Games are now illegal.
These swimsuits worn during the 2008 Olympic Games are now illegal.Adam Pretty/Getty Images

At the 2012 Summer Olympics swimming competition, everything old is new again.

In 2008, Olympic swimmers were in a class of their own, thanks to their new high-tech swimsuits. According to Kristina Wong of ABCNews.com, who wrote this article on Jan. 4, 2010:

Since their introduction in 2008 the suits, which cut down on fatigue and gave swimmers more buoyancy and speed, have led to nearly 200 world records. Last year [2009], 43 world records were set at last summer’s world championships in Rome. [Michael] Phelps wore the Speedo LZR, a full-body, 50-percent polyurethane swimsuit during the Beijing Olympics, where he won eight gold medals. Phelps broke seven world records in Beijing.

According to Wong, many people from all parts of the swimming industry wanted the suits banned because the suits created a competitive imbalance between the old records and the new records.

When Wong wrote on this subject just three days after FINA banned the suits on Jan. 1, 2010, people wondered if the world records set in the suits would ever be broken. In the 31 months following the ban, swimmers have broken numerous world records—not just the old records, but the high-tech ones.

Through Aug. 1, 13 world records have been broken since 2010. Five world records were set in these Olympics.

People learn from their mistakes, and thanks to the experiment with the high-tech suits, the swimming industry has been forced to regulate swimwear.

According to Wong, Jamie Olsen, the communications director for USA Swimming, said:

You started to see a lot of companies enter the market, and a lot of new material enter the market. There wasn’t any procedure to evaluate them scientifically.

Journalist Christine Brennan said the connection between swimsuit makers and swimming rule makers allowed for a swift legalization of the high-tech suits. Brennan called the relationship “an entangled alliance.”

With the suits now banned, there is no need to get deeper into the politics. Andrew Mooney, a Harvard University student who contributes a column entitled “Stats Driven: A Deeper Look At The Numbers Game” to Boston.com, has tried to answer a more interesting question: Just how much faster were swimmers going in the new suits? I have posted a link to the column here.

Wong’s article gave me the impression that the new suits were putting the international swimming community in panic mode. I do not think there was really a need to panic, though.

Swimming is a race against time over a set distance. With that said, the new suits were not permanently ruining the sport’s history.

What do I mean? There are very few variables over time in a sport like swimming. Time and distance have never changed, and neither has water.

It would be very easy to erase all the world records set with the new suits. We will forever know who was wearing the high-tech suits and who was not.

So, should FINA erase the world records set in the high-tech suits and restore the old records? Considering swimmers in “old” suits are breaking those records, the swimmers themselves—not FINA—might be able to restore order.  

The good thing about at least recognizing these records, in my opinion, is that it requires swimmers to swim even faster to break world records. Swimmers who break world records today can say, “Hey, I broke a record set with now illegal technology. I can prove that man is truly better than machine.”

Today’s athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than those who came before them. In swimming, that means world records will continue to fall easily, high-tech suits or not. The 2012 Olympics have proven this so far, and I would not be surprised to see more world records re-written as the competition continues.

Jason Devaney of NBCOlympics.com sums this story up well:

Some people thought it would take years for some of the “suit era” world records to be broken. But all it took was one to fall in order to let everyone know that no, these marks are not untouchable.

In fact, they’re very beatable. All it takes is some hard work in the pool, in the gym and a confident mindset. Swimming is back [to] the old days when the swimmer was the story, not the suit he or she was wearing. The latest crop of world records proves that there are a whole lot of really fast swimmers out there hungry to re-write the record books.

The real competitive tragedy will happen the day athletes lose the motivation to set new records. I do not see that day coming for a long, long time.

In the meantime, FINA should at least place an asterisk next to the “suit era” records. This way, swimmers will know what they were and will prepare themselves to break them, but swimmers from the past will get their records re-honored.