Perhaps you remember that 2009 was something of a big year for swimming. In fact, more records were set in the Olympics that year in swimming, both men’s and women’s, than ever before in any other sport. And then FINA, the organization responsible for regulating Olympic swimming, banned the suits the swimmers wore who set all these records. Why? They claimed it was the suits, not the athletes, who were harder, better, stronger, and faster this year.
The New Suit
The new Olympic swimsuit doesn’t look like your average day-at-the-beach pink pair of plastic shorts. It looks more like a risqué version of a Matrix jumpsuit. And at a half an hour just to put the thing on, they’re definitely not designed for an everyday swim. They’re designed for something very specific: competition swimming. And they’re unlike anything else previously created.
Swimmers have always taken great pains to reduce drag on their bodies during swim competitions-they shave their entire bodies and wear tight-fitting skull caps to keep drag from their hair to a minimum. These suits allowed them to do that in a whole new way. The human body experiences about 780 times as much drag from water as from air, so drag is one of the most important factors for a swimmer. And with these new suits, their drag was reduced by a total of 8%. And when the winning time and fourth-place time are nine milliseconds apart, that eight percent is the difference between bronze and world record.
How Do They Work
These suits work by creating a smooth line from the shoulder to the leg. They’re also made of a substance called polyurethane, which besides being resistant to acid corrosion, has tiny fibers that twist and turn as swimmers’ bodies move, further reducing drag at the micro level. Swimmers used to run into drag problems all over their bodies. That’s why they started shaving their bodies and wearing skullcaps. But some drag was simply unavoidable before the advent of these new styles of suit: for example, many swimmers experienced extra drag where their shorts met their waist–the elastic band caught water and slowed the swimmer down. But with the new polyurethane swimsuits, not only was drag from body hair reduced, but so was virtually all other drag. Additionally, the suits are specifically designed to trap gas bubbles inside next to the swimmer’s skin. This may not seem like much, but keep in mind that the swimmer is fighting against 780 times the drag of a person running down the street. The higher the swimmer sits in the water, the more of their form is moving through air, rather than water. This provides a significant advantage, as the swimmer can ‘skim’ along the top of the water while her competitors slog through a few inches deeper than she.
It got so bad that Michael Phelps told his publicist to tell the world that he was considering boycotting competitions that allowed the new suits because they completely obviated competition. And what with restrictive sponsorship agreements that prevent swimmers from buying the best wear available if made by another company, the Olympics was becoming more about technological innovation and corporate sponsorship than true athleticism and sportsmanship. Since Phelps has 14 gold medals, more than any Olympian in history, FINA listened, and shortly after the 2009 Olympics banned the suits.
While they’re not allowed in the games anymore, those who set their records in the suits will get to keep their world records. But, like athletes who run long distances or very fast at high altitudes, those records will be considered as being set under special circumstances, and will be marked with a star in the record book.
You might not need to break a world record but to keep your pool in tip top shape you need an expert like Warren Isaac.
Photo Credits: Wikipedia