Suit Yourself! Swimming's Golden Years Come to an End: For Now

Craig ChristopherAnalyst IJuly 28, 2009

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 12:  Natalie Coughlin models the new LZR RACER during the new Speedo Swimsuit Launch at Espace on February 12, 2008 in New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

If you enjoy watching swimming world records tumble, then you should make the most of this year’s World Championships. The current FINA splashfest is the last that will see the full advantage of the hi-tech swimsuits that have wreaked such havoc on the record books over the last couple of years.

It used to be the case that seeing a world record get broken was a rare and wondrous event. Records were only broken by rare and exceptional athletes; names like Gary Hall Senior, Mark Spitz, Claudia Kolb, Murray Rose, Shane Gould, Peter van den Hoogenband, Penny Heyns, and Ian Thorpe.

Records used to stand for years, sometimes even decades. Janet Evans’ 400 metre freestyle record stood for 18 years before being broken in 2006. It has since been broken six times by three different swimmers.

German Paul Biedermann has just broken Ian Thorpe’s ‘unbreakable’ 400m freestyle record. He has taken over seven seconds off his personal best since qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This is a staggering improvement, but how much is due to the swimmer himself? Biedermann thinks his Arena suit took two seconds off his time.

Thorpe’s record may not be the best example, as he was wearing the Adidas hi-tech suit of the day and undoubtedly gained some advantage, but the progress in the last year or so is a quantum leap over what went before.

Of the 40 records that are kept for long course (50m) swimming, 37 have been broken in the last year—most multiple times. 2008 saw 108 world records broken. A further 28 have fallen this year, although with the World Championships underway that number will jump dramatically.

The records aren’t just being eclipsed, either. In the final of the men’s 4x100 freestyle relay at the Beijing Olympics, the existing world record was shattered by four seconds and beaten by the first six teams in the final.

Some put the dramatic improvements down to other factors, in addition to the suits. ‘Fast pools’ and improvements in training techniques have certainly contributed, but it is clear that the swimsuits are the real stars.

There are some swimmers competing in Rome this week who are superstars with or without the suits. Michael Phelps, as an example, would still be untouchable and has proven himself against suited swimmers time and again.

But Phelps is the exception. The suits have taken a batch of very good swimmers and made them great. The suits alone did not do the job, it still took many years of dedicated training and self sacrifice, but the suits provided an exaggerated reward for effort.

There are still those who maintain that the suits offer little in the way of assistance. There were even those who argued that the suits actually slowed swimmers down. That must have been why almost every swimmer at the elite level wanted to wear them.

From January 2010 we will see the suits face some significant restrictions. They won’t be gone forever and scientists will continue to make improvements within the new rules. But, for a while, we are about to witness world swimming going backwards for the first time in many years—possibly ever.

My bet is that the number of world records being broken in 2010 won’t reach double figures. Only time will tell.