Apparently Japanese contenders for Olympic swimming medals are in a tizzy because British swimwear manufacturer 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, â€˜sucks the muscles into perfect shape for swimmingâ€™ and repels water to reduce drag, and was developed with NASA.
Now itâ€™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. Thatâ€™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 letâ€™s be fair here. If we restricted this technology, then we also need to restrict the technology thatâ€™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, thatâ€™s not actually possible to answer, because we donâ€™t know how fast heâ€™d be with the prosthetics. And we donâ€™t know how slow the other runners would be with them. But sporting bodies always consider each case on its own merits, and in Oscarâ€™s case eventually decided there isnâ€™t enough evidence to support the â€˜unfair advantageâ€™ 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; itâ€™s impossible to see how the losers wonâ€™t moan up a storm. But in Oscarâ€™s case, the question can never be â€œwould he have won without the technology?â€ because thatâ€™s not a viable option. With the swimsuits, itâ€™s about what technology is available to swimmers to give them an edge. Ditto running shoes (excepting Zola Budd). And any sport which doesnâ€™t involve naked athletes.
And then thereâ€™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 doesnâ€™t find technology advances like the LZR Racer fair, should either demand naked swimming, or get over it. There are sensible lines, and itâ€™s not like some swimmers are suddenly appearing with jet propellers strapped to their legs. The only issues are those of availability and patriotism â€“ Speedo only make 70 suits a day (there arenâ€™t THAT many Olympic swimmers though), and of course the Japanese want to swim in a home-grown brand. But thatâ€™s a myopic stance, because of course if we limited ourselves to technology which our own country manufactured or invented, there wouldnâ€™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.