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This Shouts from the Stands was written by Evelyn Pickett, who shares her capstone research paper for Oakton High School regarding the technological advances in swimming gear and their effects on records.
The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius.” Faster, Higher, Stronger. This motto has driven competition since the earliest Olympics of ancient Greece, and for the best swimmers in the world it means one thing: putting your hand on the wall faster than anyone in history. Just when it is thought that an athlete has reached the edge of human performance, that no one could ever be faster, it fuels another to prove them wrong. As world record times continue to drop, and athletes seem to be getting continually faster, one must ask what factors besides pure strength are contributing to this never ending cycle of world record breaking. The technological advances in swimming throughout Olympic history have devalued world records, and these improvements to the sport must be regulated in order to provoke the betterment of athleticism rather than science.
Since the first Olympic swimming race in 1896, there have been many groundbreaking improvements in technology that have aided athletes in their missions to be the best. In 1956, the swimmers were allowed to flip turn into each of their walls for the first time. This led to the first great spike in world records broken, as it is still the most effective way to change direction while maintaining the most possible momentum. Later, in 1976, the guttered pool was introduced. Instead of the waves created by the swimmers splashing back and causing resistance, the edges of the pool served as a drainage system, constantly carrying water away and redistributing it in a less resistive fashion (Epstein). Throughout the last century, pools have gotten deeper, allowing waves to dissipate in the water below instead of bouncing off of the bottom and interfering with the swimmer. New designs for starting blocks were also invented including a downward slant and a track style lip on the back meant to increase acceleration and power off of the start. All of these design improvements have no other purpose than enhancing the speed of the swimmers, giving them an edge on those who have competed before them.
Besides changes to strokes and pool structure, swimsuits became smaller and tighter as studies of hydrodynamics became more advanced. Scientists got to work to develop the most hydrodynamic suits possible to aid athletes, desperately trying to keep up with the growing demand for technology and engineering in the swimming world. At first, because the suits’ material was more drag creating than human skin, it was better to have more skin exposed. Then, as technology advanced, companies began experimenting with different materials that were, in fact, better than human skin at cutting through water with the most speed. The suits that are used today such as the Speedo LZR X and LZR Elite are a blend of nylon and lycra. From personal experience they take about 20 minutes to put on, are worn anywhere from three to six sizes smaller than a practice suit, and are generally suffocating. However, their effectiveness in enhancing speed in undeniably shown on the clock every time the knee length suits are put on for races. This technological revolution started with the invention of nylon. Speedo came out with several designs of high tech suits meant to reduce drag for the swimmers starting with the release of the S2000 in 1992. Then, only four years later, Speedo developed that into the Aquablade which was worn by 77% of all gold medalists in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Finally, In 2000, Speedo came out with their Fastskin, a lycra based suit that is specially designed to mimic a shark’s skin, slicing through water and reducing drag. This revolutionary technology was heavily criticised by competing companies for its legality, but the decision was up to FINA. The Federation Internacionale de Natation (FINA) is the governing body for swimming. They are in charge of overseeing international standards for the sport, while also regulating the technological improvements and innovations made to make sure no swimmer has an unfair advantage. FINA had approved both of Speedo’s nylon based swimsuits, but their decision to allow full length lycra Fastskins was a bit tougher. At the time, the FINA rule book stated, “No swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device that may aid his speed, buoyancy or endurance during a competition.” Critics argued that the Fastskin technology’s ability to direct water around the swimmer constituted a device, and the tight compression that artificially reduces muscle vibrations aided the muscular endurance of the swimmers. FINA, however, allowed the Fastskin to be used in the 2000 Sydney Olympic games where 83% of world record breakers were wearing the new high tech suits. This decision unleashed a technological beast that would change the sport of swimming and make it unclear whether athletes are truly getting faster. Speedo took FINA’s approval of the Fastskin as the go ahead to keep experimenting with new materials. In 2008 they came out with their LZR Racer, a 50% polyurethane full body supersuit that is undoubtedly fast. In 2009, 100% polyurethane suits were introduced such as the Italian Jaked J01 and Adidas Hydrofoil which caused times to drop further (Craik). It has been found that the full bodysuits released in 2000 increased performance in men’s freestyle races by up to 1.4%, the introduction of partial polyurethane suits in 2008 enhanced speed by 3.5%, and by 2009, the suits were helping the swimmers by up to 5.5% (Foster). Arena, a competitor of Speedo, denounced it as “technological doping,” for in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an unusually high number of new world records were set and within a year of its release, a total of 130 had been broken (Craik).
Swimming was becoming more about the technology than the swimmers wearing it. After much criticism and debate, FINA unanimously agreed that any full body or polyurethane suit would be illegal, however the records broken while wearing the suits would still stand (Craik). FINA clarified their rule book to disqualify any “device or swimsuit” that aided in speed, it now also states that suits may only be made from “textile materials” (FINA Swimming Rules). Some argue that FINA intentionally keeps their regulations vague to promote technological advancements. Australian swim coach Forbes Carlile states, “All FINA sees is the glamour and world records. They see themselves as entrepreneurs, not as the custodians of the sport” (Craik). If FINA were to better regulate technology, there would be a much better way to account for the value and fairness of world records. However it would then be possible that humans could reach their peak of performance and eventually stop breaking records. In which case, who would want to watch the Olympics?
Today, Michael Phelps holds the world record for the 100 meter butterfly, but where is the line drawn between being the fastest in history and wearing the best technology in history? In 2008 he competed while wearing a specially designed full body suit, cap and goggles, pushing off of a technologically brilliant starting block into a pool perfected for wave reduction. He won gold in all eight of his events leaving behind seven new world records and one Olympic record. In the 1972 Munich Olympics, Mark Spitz competed with no cap, no shaved legs or head, no goggles, no specially designed blocks, no deep, cold, guttered pool, and definitely no technology in his loose fitting, brief suit. He also won gold in all seven of his events, and left behind a world record in every one. Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz are arguably the two best American swimmers in history, yet Phelps swam the 100 meter butterfly in 50.54 seconds, while Spitz went a 54.27 (Olympic Games). In a sport where hundredths of seconds determine wins and losses, four seconds is a lot of time. However, considering the technological advances that Phelps reaps the advantages of, is it even fair to compare the two athletes? It is like comparing apples to oranges. Phelps swam under completely different conditions, so it is no surprise that he is significantly faster than Spitz ever was. It is FINA’s allowal of such drastic changes to the sport that feed the breaking of world records.
Athletes, however, are training harder and smarter than ever before. Studies of nutrition and exercise throughout the twentieth century have guided swimmers to perfect their bodies for speed. These bodies have also become incredibly specialized and designed for specific sports, especially swimming. Michael Phelps is equipped with a large torso to carry himself through the water like a boat, unusually long arms, and huge, paddle like hands and feet (Epstein). Phelps never misses a day of practice and has learned to push his body past his mental limits. His athleticism is undeniable. Therefore, it would be unfair to strip him of the fame he deserves as an incredible Olympic athlete. It is very possible that if they competed under the same conditions, Michael Phelps could have beaten Mark Spitz purely out of strength and skill without any aid from technology. In that case, Phelps would be undoubtedly deserving of the titles and records he holds, but there is no real way to compare the two. It is impossible to say that one is truly faster than the other, and denouncing Spitz of his records simply because FINA has allowed the sport to evolve in irrevocable ways is unfair. Ultimately, considering the ways that technology aids athletes in the pool, the measurement of world records in determining the best swimmers in history is no longer credible.
The technological revolution that FINA has unleashed will allow athletes to push beyond the maximum human performance and possibly create a never- ending cycle of dropping time. It is necessary to inform the public that there is more to breaking world records than just skill and athleticism, and that it is completely unfair to compare athletes from different generations. The changes to swimming that have allowed swimmers to continue to drop time have devalued world records, for the line between greatness in speed and greatness in technology has forever been blurred.
Craik, Jennifer. “The Fastskin Revolution: From Human Fish to Swimming Androids.” Culture Unbound, e-book. Originally published in Culture Unbound, vol. 3, 2011, pp. 71-82.
Epstein, David. “Are Athletes Really Getting Faster, Better, Stronger?” TED2014, Mar. 2014. Lecture.
“FINA Swimming Rules.” FINA, 21 Sept. 2017, www.fina.org/sites/default/fil
Foster, Leon, et al. “Influence of Full Body Swimsuits on Competitive Performance.” Elsevier, vol. 34, 2012, pp. 712-17. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/2012.04.121.
Olympic Games. International Olympic Committee, 2018, www.olympic.org.
About Evelyn Pickett
Evelyn Pickett is a junior at Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia, where she has been a two sport varsity athlete for the past three years. She has been swimming since she was 4, at first for the Oakton Otters (NVSL), then more recently year round for Machine Aquatics. She swims for OHS where she has competed in the VA 6A State Championship meet for three years and has been elected co-captain for the 2018-19 season. Although she loves swimming, lacrosse is what she is most passionate about. She is a member of the Oakton Varsity girls lacrosse team and has been a co-captain for the past two years. She plays lacrosse year round and is verbally committed to play at the D1 level for the United States Military Academy- West Point class of 2023.