Science

Technology. Is it Sporting?

Apparently Japanese contenders for Olympic swimming medals are in a tizzy because British swimwear speedomanufacturer Speedo has developed a swimsuit which, it is claimed, is responsible for the breaking of thirty-seven swimming records since February. The bodysuit, called the LZR Racer, ‘sucks the muscles into perfect shape for swimming’ and repels water to reduce drag, and was developed with NASA.

Now it’s being reported that Japanese manufacturers are racing to try and invent their own version, but with only a few weeks before the Olympics, are having a tough time of it. And some swimmers are even crying foul over the suit, saying it gives swimmers who wear it an unfair advantage.

Well, tough. That’s what technology is meant for. When swimming goggles were invented, they also gave wearers an advantage. Those who lost figured out that they needed to keep up, or get out of the race. So they got their own goggles. Ditto those swimming caps that make you look like a be-condomed peen. You get more distance per stroke if you wear one (chortle!). And advances in swimwear technology are nothing new, suits have been improving ever since countries started to swim competitively.

And let’s be fair here. If we restricted this technology, then we also need to restrict the technology that’s allowing double-amputee Oscar Pistorius to compete at the Olympics. He uses carbon-fiber prosthetics. The debate over his eligibility was long and drawn-out, and centred around the question of whether the technology gave him an unfair advantage. Well, that’s not actually possible to answer, because we don’t know how fast he’d be with the prosthetics. And we don’t know how slow the other runners would be with them. But sporting bodies always consider each case on its own merits, and in Oscar’s case eventually decided there isn’t enough evidence to support the ‘unfair advantage’ claim.

In that case, as with the swimsuits (which have been approved by swimming’s world governing body, FINA), it will be an interesting situation if the user wins; it’s impossible to see how the losers won’t moan up a storm. But in Oscar’s case, the question can never be “would he have won without the technology?” because that’s not a viable option. With the swimsuits, it’s about what technology is available to swimmers to give them an edge. Ditto running shoes (excepting Zola Budd). And any sport which doesn’t involve naked athletes.

And then there’s the argument that the LZR Racer had little or nothing to do with the broken records, and those swimmers got there a result of their own training and effort. Sporting records do get broken, often, although thirty in three months is rather high. But no suit alone can make an Olympic swimmer. Kudos to the skill of the athletes.

My opinion is that the any athlete who doesn’t find technology advances like the LZR Racer fair, should either demand naked swimming, or get over it. There are sensible lines, and it’s not like some swimmers are suddenly appearing with jet propellers strapped to their legs. The only issues are those of availability and patriotism – Speedo only make 70 suits a day (there aren’t THAT many Olympic swimmers though), and of course the Japanese want to swim in a home-grown brand. But that’s a myopic stance, because of course if we limited ourselves to technology which our own country manufactured or invented, there wouldn’t be any Olympics at all. And if there were, Portugal would win the swimming because the new suit is patented and made there, or Britain would, because a London company owns Speedo. But no-one could get to the Olympics anyway, because the first jet-plane was invented by a Romanian. In France. Unless anyone fancies a long swim?

UPDATE: The Japan Swimming Federation has decided to get a clue and allow their swimmers to wear the suits after all.

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33 Comments

  1. Important Science Question! In naked swimming, would the Brazilianed female have a competitive advantage? I’m thinking she must do, same reason that cyclists shave their legs.

    And would the better-endowed male experience more drag than his smaller counterpart? Interested parties want to know. I guess if the water’s cold enough it all evens out.

  2. As far as I’m aware, the shaving legs thing makes no noticable difference to the times for swimmers, cyclists etc. It’s almost a superstition thing, like ‘go faster stripes’. Possibly just an excuse to shave their legs. Sudden random thought: ‘go faster stripes’ in pubic hair………

  3. Thanks neverclear5! I always thought that was a performance thing, but a quick google confirms it. Leg shaving doesn’t improve cycling performance! A myth busted right here on Skepchick!

    OK, so going back to my original question, would a naked swimmer go Brazilian…well, if cyclists shave their legs because hairlessness looks nicer (that seems to be the main reason given in the sites I just read), then it’s probably fair to assume swimmers would go the same way. You don’t see much underarm hair amongst the female Olympic swimmers. And you never see what I referred to in a post last week as ‘pubic peepage’. Y’know…a swimsuit mustache.

  4. Cyclists shave their legs for several reasons:
    – It makes it easier for the soigneur to massage their legs after the ride.
    – Hairy legs with sunscreen tends to collect an *amazing* number of bugs and insects, in addition to general dust and dirt, over a 200 km ride. Shaved legs: not so much.
    – After a crash it’s easier to treat a wound on a shaved leg than on a hairy leg, and it tends to heal up a little bit nicer (obviously depending on the hairiness).

  5. I kind of think it would be cooler to do it nude. That’s the way they started, you know… Plus, some of those Olympians are super-sexy, and I can’t think of another way I’d ever get to see any of them naked.

    On the subject of shaving, considering how many swimmers shave everything else, I think they’d shave their genitals as well, regardless of whether there’s any actual evidence of it improving their swimming times, Magic Feather Syndrome will continue to be a prevailing factor in all sports.

    Also, thank you all for putting the image of certain specific Olympic swimmers naked into my head. I’ll be enjoying that for quite some time. ;)

  6. My opinion is that the any athlete who doesn’t find technology advances like the LZR Racer fair, should either demand naked swimming, or get over it.

    The problem with the is the availability of the technology. That’s the gripe of some of the athletes. Not that it’s unfair.

    Many of the athletes are under contract with other athletic wear companies that have yet to develop the technology. The Japanese are going for it, but other companies realize they won’t have time before the Olympics.

    If Janskin has paid for your travel, lodging, training, etc. leading up to and entering the Olympics, you’re going to have to be loyal to them or risk being in breach of contract. And that means not swimming in a cool new super fast Speedo suit.

  7. Rebecca, I think it’s safe to say that we all demand naked swimming. In fact, all of the sports should be performed naked, just like in the original Olympics.

    Maybe people would actually start watching. ;)

  8. Oh yeah. Given the amount of physical damage athletes are willing to do to themselves taking steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in order to get an advantage, when will we see athletes undergoing voluntary amputations in order to get the advantage of springy carbon-fibre legs? Especially when leg technology is going to improve a lot faster than people evolve?

  9. There was an article in Sports Illustrated a few years ago that said shaving all your body hair reduces your overall time 1 second per 100 yards or meters. Being a former swimmer, shaving had a noticable difference in my streamline glide.

  10. This reminds me of when clap skates were first widely used in speed-skating during the 1998 Olympics. I seem to remember that most, but not all, of the competitors were using them, setting new records nearly every day, while the few teams that didn’t use them were crushed.

    Also: I’ve been disqualified from Olympic swimming because I have webbed toes. True story.*

    *may not actually be true, except the freakish genetic anomaly, which totally is.

  11. aibx: depends how well he does, I guess :D

    Seriously though, I doubt many people would voluntarily have their legs removed.

    Sam: that’s what you get in a free market. It’s just plain old tough luck. The alternative is to suppress technology because some athletes have financial deals with competitors of those companies that developed the new tech. I can’t think of many things more wrong than that. Yes, it costs a lot of money to train for the Olympics. Yes, sponsorship deals are a method of funding it. Yes, that does mean you might find yourself trapped by an exclusivity clause in the contract you signed. No, that does not mean other athletes shouldn’t take advantage of Speedo’s investment in new developments.

    There are quotes in the article I linked to that quote individuals as claiming it is unfair.

  12. We’re living in a science-fiction world already. The question of voluntary technological limb replacements is not “if” but “when.” The answer is “it’s already happening.” Many countries actually have laws against it (including the United States). Seriously, for all of our astounding technological advances of the prosthetics front, our best are really just peg-legs with some nifty features, and enough people are already willing to get the replacement that laws have been made against doing so, do you really think that as the tech advances, the demand will not grow?

  13. Talking about banning technology is a bit of a red herring here.

    The issue is that the athletes have differential access to technologies in the race. While it’s true that an amputee is an interesting case, having a special speed suit that no one else has access to in a race is hardly sporting or fair, anymore than some athletes having access to steroid drugs that can pass drug tests. And “tough luck” is hardly a reasonable answer. It doesn’t have to be tough luck. Sporting events all the time impose rules that equalize the technology: either everyone gets one of these suits, or no one does.

  14. Bad, that’s simply not what’s happening here. Anyone can buy the Speedo suit. I can buy one. They make 70 a day. The problem is that the Japanese ‘aren’t allowed’ because of existing sponsorship contracts, as pointed out by Sam. Which absolutely is ‘tough luck’. One country’s or company’s restrictive policies is NOT the problem of everyone else. In Japan’s case and the sponsor’s case, it’s in their best interest to have winning swimmers. If that means allowing them access to the best APPROVED technology, then that’s what it means. Anything else is backwards. You can’t seriously be suggesting that because Japanese swimmers aren’t allowed the suits, no-one should be?

  15. But if they swim naked, they’ll have to have the sponsorship logos tattooed on their backs (like how the scantily-bikini-ed beach volleyball players have temp tattoos on their arms.)

    Ugh. I wish corporate sponsorship wasn’t such a big deal. I’m not sure how I feel though… it seems like, if the focus of the Olympics is on superior athletic ability, each sport should have a particular “uniform” to prevent advantage not due to physical ability. Athletes/countries could vote on it, and the best company would win.

    Otherwise, I agree that people need to get over it and swim naked. I mean… “or” swim naked. ;)

  16. Full-bosomed women would be at a disadvantage in naked swimming due to excessive drag. But think of all the fans they’d have …

    I’d just like to say that my aesthetic appreciation of the beauties of the female form engaged in pure athletic endeavours is uninfluenced by such trivialities as the size of the breast. Harmony, grace, strength and athletic excellence is all.

    Well, that, and nekkidness.

  17. I would definitely start watching the Olympics again with all naked events. Hell, I’d lobby for the addition of several new events at every subsequent Olympics and demand that they hold the Olympics every year.

  18. I would definitely start watching the Olympics again with all naked events. Hell, I’d lobby for the addition of several new events at every subsequent Olympics and demand that they hold the Olympics every year.

    I vote for Olympic Hula-Hooping!

  19. The studies I’m aware of (from sport medicine journals) re swimming speed and removing body hair are that it gives one about a 3-4% greater speed, which for the fatest Olympic events works out to about 1/4 of a mile per hour. Not big, but in competition it can be the difference. There’s also an effect that occurs after shaving body hair involving a decrease in lactic acid buildup which doesn’t seem to help speed but does reduce effort and improve efficiency.

  20. I would definitely start watching the Olympics again with all naked events. Hell, I’d lobby for the addition of several new events at every subsequent Olympics and demand that they hold the Olympics every year.

    Olympic naked trampoline jumping.

    Olympic naked yoga.

    Olympcic naked “rhythmic gymnastics”, you know, with the ribbons and hoops and whatnot.

    It boggles the mind …

  21. Cyclists shave their legs because they want to show off. That’s it. Oh and because hairy legs + lycra shorts = yeeech! It tends to be limited to road (and cyclocross) cyclists. It’s also why mountain bikers (who don’t shave, massage and crashes notwithstanding) think road bikers are…er… less manly.

    Regarding the new super swimsuit issue (pun not intended, but left in intentionally) and sponsorship. In the world of professional cycling, teams are (usually) sponsored by one bicycle frame manufacturer. Sometimes an individual athlete prefers another manufacturer. If the athlete is important enough (Jan Ullrich was one example) they get to use their preferred manufacturer with the stipulation that their frame be painted to look like just the team’s sponsored bike.

  22. Improbable Bee

    Olympcic naked “rhythmic gymnastics”, you know, with the ribbons and hoops and whatnot.

    And have 14 year old Nadia Commanecci(sp?)s running around in the buff?
    Perhaps not such a good idea …

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