Score one for laminates. The human got crushed. The nature of the confrontation was clear: Michael Phelps, the amphibious freak of nature, against the Arena X-Glide body suit, an artificial swim shell with a science fiction title worn by German Paul Biedermann. It was man against thermoplastic, basically a case of Phelps trying to swim faster than a guy wearing the hull of a spacecraft. We all know who won.
The suitmakers, of course.
Before the race, Phelps had seemed eager to test himself and his outdated Speedo LZR suit, which was a relic, a junker despite the fact that just a year ago its “ultrasonically welded” seams were the sport’s latest rage. “I never back down from a challenge,” he said. “I love challenges.” When anyone tried to ask him if he was worried about going against the soon-to-be banned polyurethane suits this week in the world championships in Rome, he shut down the conversation by insisting he was there to test his swimming, not a scientific hypothesis.
“I said I wasn’t going to talk about the suit,” he said. “I’m here to swim at the world championships, so keep asking questions about suits and you’re going to get the same exact answer.”
Still, you could tell underneath it all that Phelps was intrigued by the special nature of the contest, the prospect of personally trumping the controversial technology that will be exiled by FINA starting next year — and which has so skewed competition in the sport that more than 140 world records have fallen in the past 18 months, including 15 in just three days in Rome, many of them to previously undistinguished swimmers.
But as it happened, the LZR lacked the ability of the Suit to conquer the ionosphere and alter temporal dimensions.
Phelps hadn’t lost an important race since 2005, but on Tuesday, he not only got smoked in the 200-meter freestyle, he saw his world record shattered by.96 of a second, as Biedermann ripped past him in the water on the first lap and touched the wall a body length ahead. Afterward Phelps was so baffled by what The Suit had done to him that he resorted to the same phony science jargon employed by the swimsuit companies. He swam a decent race, three-tenths off his best time, and still got drowned by backwash.
“Theoretically, it was a pretty good swim for me,” he said.
The Phelps-Biedermann race actually proved nothing important — except that the sport’s governing body, FINA, is confusedly incompetent, and these world championships aren’t a swim meet, but a NASA exhibit on the effects of “laminar and turbulent boundary-layer physics.” FINA’s decision to ban the new suits after the competition instead of before is nonsensical. The X-Glide has plainly elevated middle-of-the-pack swimmers into Aquaman superheros, none moreso than Biedermann, who had never won an Olympic or world championship medal before and was ranked ninth in the 200 free last year. Biedermann busted Ian Thorpe’s seven-year-old record in the 400 on Sunday, a result so absurd that Australian swimming great Grant Hackett called it a “bloody shame.”
The new generation suits work on the same principles as aerodynamics. Just like reducing drag helps planes fly faster, reducing body drag helps humans swim faster. Studies show that skin friction amounts to almost one-third of the total force restraining a swimmer in the water. Companies such as Arena have spent enormous sums researching which fabrics and weaves drag the least. The X-Glide is a 100 percent polyurethane body glove, so hard to slip on that the wearer needs plastics bags on his or her feet and gloves on their hands just to slide it on. It is so skin tight it actually traps air, which in addition to reducing drag makes a swimmer buoyant. And thus a Biedermann can shoot past a 14-time gold medalist such as Phelps.
A new FINA rule will say that from now on suits must be made from “textiles.” But that hardly remedies the situation in Rome, where swimmers are screaming with outrage over the bizarre times, such as Biedermann’s 1 minute 42 seconds flat in the 200, a record that may never be equaled. Swimming great Dawn Fraser has labeled the meet a “laughingstock.” Biedermann himself admitted after rocketing past Thorpe’s mark in the 400, “I expected someone to break the world record. I didn’t expect it to be me,” and estimated the suit was worth two full seconds.
In the meantime FINA continues to bumble around and appease the swimwear companies, compounding the problem by refusing to set a date for banning the suits, hemming and hawing over the definition of “textile” and standards for thickness, buoyancy and permeability. FINA’s sluggishness caused the problem in the first place, as the organization sat stupidly by over the past eight years and watched an interesting technological revolution turn into an arms race between manufacturers, and spiral out of control. The organization made a great show of disciplining Phelps for what he inhaled this off-season, instead of attending to its real business. FINA should show a little of that energy now: Issue an overnight edict, banning the suits from the pool for the rest of the meet. What’s done is done, but that doesn’t mean the nonsense has to continue.
Records are about identifying the outliers, the extremes of human possibility. As the line between artificial and non-artificial gets ever more unclear, we’re left to rely increasingly on intuition about the best way to control technology and progress. But the swimsuit issue is clear cut — far more than the moral morass of performance-enhancing substances that athletes ingest internally. At least an athlete has to do the work to get the benefit of a steroid. All a swimmer has to do is put on the Suit to get a more exceptional performance, a couple of extra seconds.
Swimming at the moment is just a matter of what you’re wearing. We all want to see records, but if they’re broken in every heat, and anyone can swim alongside a Phelps, then what is the value of a race?