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Arena X-Glide Body Suit 1,
Michael Phelps 0

By Sally Jenkins
Michael Phelps and Paul Biedermann enter the pool for their 200 freestyle final Tuesday. Biederman beat Phelps and Phelps's world record wearing the Arena X-Glide body suit.

Michael Phelps and Paul Biedermann enter the pool for their 200 freestyle final Tuesday. Biederman beat Phelps and Phelps's world record wearing the Arena X-Glide body suit. (Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press)

World Championships Archive

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Before the race, Phelps had seemed eager to test himself and his outdated Speedo LZR suit, which was a relic, a junker despite the fact that just a year ago its “ultrasonically welded” seams were the sport’s latest rage.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?

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26 Responses to “Arena X-Glide Body Suit 1,
Michael Phelps 0”

  1. roger mirely says:

    when Phelps broke several world records in 2008 Olympics with his speedo LZR suite, nobody in America complained! But now when a german beats Phelps, everyone in America is shouting and the author goes far to say ” What’s done is done, but that doesn’t mean the nonsense has to continue”. I see notions of patriotism lingering here, not fairness or actual concern.

  2. Ty says:

    R u kidding me with this nonsense? When it was the Americans winning in Beijing the Speedo Lazr was hailed as the greatest thing since sliced bread, now that Arena has surpassed them you want to ban them and wipe out the records that is complete rubbish, Phelps lost it happens suck it up. FINA allowed the LAZR and so now you must deal with the xglide. And all records stand and your not going to ban the suit mid meet what utter nonsense grow up and Phelps needs to show the same grace he did when he won as he does when he lost and by the way silver is nothing to sneeze at! Typical Americans

  3. A. Oliver says:

    It’s not about the suits. It’s about the training. Phelps smoked pot. Took six months off. Went to Vegas and did photo shoots. Caroused in general. And he was only a couple tenths of his former world record? Let’s put his purported “loss” in perspective please. Most swimmers would not come close to making the team after six months off. Long course is unforgiving. If you don’t train, you sink the last ten meters.

  4. American says:

    Wow… you need to re-read the article, Oliver. the issue is not training, it is the suit. Yes, he took time off after breaking 7 world records. No duh. Every athlete does that. Clearly he did not take 6 months off though, do your research. His training was clearly BETTER this time though because the article said he beat his own previous PR (Personal Records) by 3/10 of a second. He did better than before.

    Good points by the other commenters. Americans did not seem to be too concerned when it was Phelps in the new shiny suit.
    Phelps was showing grace,though, Ty, if you watch his interviews. He was humbled and in awe. Quite graceful, if I do say so myself.
    No one is saying that they should ban it in the middle of the trials. We would appreciate a date being set on when it will be banned though, other than “some time between now and February 2010.”
    and in response to your last sentence, Oliver: If you do train for don’t train you’ll sink in the last ten meters, unless, of course, you have a lighter than water suit on that saves you 1/5 of your energy by keeping you afloat.

    Final word: If both were wearing the same suit, no matter which it was, Phelps would have one: clearly. The other swimmer admits it- he would have been “2 seconds” slower than he was.

  5. ShoeBaca says:

    The notion that Americans are “crying” over this issue makes the nature of your post seem biased and not completely thought out. Phelps did not lose a race with a level playing field…

    It’s a tale of two swimmers, one who is both fighting to get both forward momentum to stay afloat, another who is simply putting the effort into speed.

    It is science that muscle is heavy and sinks… these world class swimmers are the epitome of muscular physique. That being said, the buoyancy aided with the Arena X-Glide is the reason for the amazing time drop and “World Record.”

    Aside from Phelps losing, the time alone is absurd and fake. Biederman’s swimsuit put him in a tireless situation where he was able to sprint home faster than the king of “back half swims.” We all saw and were astounded by phelps at the Beijing Olympics when he would come off his final wall in every race… nobody could muster even a remotely impressive impersonation of his skill… for a suit to make the difference in this scenario and ultimately wipe out a disgusting world record, it is unfair to both phelps and the sport of swimming

    iconic names are turning to rubbish; our sport, a mockery… it is time for change, even if we take Ryan Lochte’s suggestion of “banana hammocks.”

    Look at the big picture, people- nobody’s crying here… just trying to keep the integrity of a sport which has a hard time staying afloat in general

    If phelps doesn’t swim, nobody will watch

  6. Chris says:

    READ the article. Biedermann himself said it is the SUIT.

  7. Michele says:

    For those of you old enough to remember when lycra suits came out, you will have a better insight into this situation. Lycra suits were almost banned way back in the 1970s because they didn’t have two layers of fabric in the front (for girls) like the old time polyester suits. Before lycra was approved, our whole team had to sew an extra piece of fabric on the front to swim a race in it. The next year it was approved and no one thought it was a disaster that records dropped. In fact, everyone was kind of excited!!

    If this new SUIT is available to everyone, what’s the big deal?

  8. gary says:

    why not just let the athletes use the best suit that works for them?

    if they did, Phelps would simply trade in his now antiquated speedo for an x-glide, just like he traded his prior suit for the speedo that gave him an unfair advantage in China.

  9. Dan Kahn says:

    Yeah, it really seems a bit rich for the Americans to start complaining about the suits only when a GERMAN beats Phelps in a ‘next generation’ suit. Would they make the same fuss if a swimmer from Great Britain (or maybe Canada) had beaten him? I think not.
    What’s done is done, the records made in the new suits should stand; bodysuits are part of swimming and should stay; even a casual leisure swimmer like me finds a suit like a Speedo fullbody fastskin enormously superior to wearing a pair of silly little trunks, and as well as providing streamlining, the suits help support the body for comfort, especially if swimming for long periods.

    My suggestion is to get round the PU suits issue by insisting that any PU-type fabric should be PERMEABLE, perhaps with microperforations, so that there is no question of retaining any air. FINA should accept and approve any new fullbody suits which pass rigorous tests re. issues like this; Going back to stupid little ‘Jammers’ will make a mockery of several years of records; it would be like downhill skiers being told to stop using crouch-position, streamlined helmets, leg-fairings and bodysuits, and just wear shorts (plainly not safe in that sport though); or imagine Track Cyclists being forced to wear sleeveless suits and discard spokeless Kevlar wheels, or indeed to use only wheels with at least 32 round-profile spokes (as on many standard ‘road’ racing bikes…)
    I’m not a real expert on swimming, but I am fairly knowledgeable on Cycling; the problem which FINA faces with fullbody suits is a bit like the issue that the UCI has faced for many years with streamlined pedal-powered bikes and trikes, known as ‘HPV’s (Human Powered Vehicles). The UCI’s view is that bikes in UCI events cannot include any component purely for streamlining, although all the structural parts of the bike from the pedals to the wheels and handlebars can be streamlined; also the rider can wear streamlined helmet and suit.

    Unless FINA sorts out some compromise, such as retaining bodysuits, but of permeable material, the swimwear manufacturers for one wont be pleased…

  10. Speedo is all I wear says:

    It’s not the suit – it’s the 6 month hiatus!!! Training is the major reason swimmers do well – the suits only add to the buoyancy…

  11. ShoeBaca says:

    To Gary:

    Phelps’ LZR did not give him an unfair advantage in Beijing as you stated in your post. The final heat of every race featured athletes who either sported the LZR or the Blue Seventy… Beijing was an even playing field…

    Athletes contracted with companies other than Speedo (piersol and others) were allowed to utilize the LZR for the games, making the games fair.

    This is not biased; realize, however, that Phelps did not win on an unfair slate…

  12. Caitlin says:

    I agree that it’s ridiculous that NOW the complaining begins. This isn’t the first race the suits created an “unfair” advantage. It’s also ridiculous for Phelps coach to threaten to pull him from the sport until the “problem” is fixed: http://www.newsy.com/videos/suited_up_for_controversy However, I’m glad the suits are now a hot topic for swim officials.

  13. Jack Henderson says:

    ShoeBaca,
    that is not correct! Some national teams, for example the German one, were bound to their sponsors and couldn’t just switch as they liked! They entered the races know it was a lost thing. The suits from Arena or adidas were clearly not comparable. It’s a miracle Biedermann managed to finish 5th last year.
    And 94 percent of all races in Beijing were won with a LZR. That’s a figure that should make you think. The bottom line is: already in Beijing the play field was uneven. Everybody wanted to see a guy snatch 8 golds and kept their mouth shut, but the suits should have been forbidden long before.

    And I agree with Caitlin. There needs to be this discussion, otherwise the lame guys at FINA will never realise what they have done to the sport they should have protected.

  14. becca says:

    We don’t know that Phelps would have on in a regular suit. Biedermann said that it was worth two seconds but that was for the 400. Also, let’s point out that Biedermann is likely talking about vs textiles. Phelps LZR was a tech suit too…

    Biedermann was putting some fast times in textiles this year, and Phelps was clearly struggling a bit.. It’s possible Biedermann would have beaten him still, we will never know because of the suit, and that’s a shame.

  15. Chris Lee says:

    The X-Glide is available to everyone in the world. If Phelps was smart he would throw one on and break more records before the ban. Agreed, it’s not fair to past swimmers in the past who had inferior technology, but let’s admit it, the history books wont forget them.Technological advances in sports as well as advances in workout methods are crucial to every sport. Is it more about the sponsor or the record? That’s an easy answer.

  16. someone says:

    why is technology being stifled, let them all wear the new suits, wouldn’t that level the playing field?

  17. coachhadly says:

    The reason people want the Arena suits banned is because they have turned swimming into a complete joke. Biederman is not in Phelps’ class. Everyone who knows swimming knows this. HE KNOWS THIS. When the greatest swimmer in the world is winning with the speedo suit, that’s what’s supposed to happen anyway…. when Biederman (who couldn’t even make finals in the olympics) CRUSHES the great swimmer in history, then crushes the 400 record from Ean Thorpe which was considered untouchable….. and on top of it all Biederman says “I hope someday I can beat Phelps without the suit”… these are the reasons why people are outraged.

  18. zak says:

    The X-Glide suit doesnt just reduce drag it make the wearer more boyant! Thats what the big deal is… Thats why its not right. Americans are not mad that we were beat… We are mad that swimming is put to shame by a suit!!!

  19. Leo says:

    shutup american

  20. Pang says:

    You’re wrong, Biederman was in lane 2 in the 200free in Olympics, get your facts right coachhadly. thankyou.

  21. ArenaVsSpeedo says:

    So what? Biederman beats Phelps and now every American is crying? Oh jeez. Phelps got a WR in 100 fly with LZR and I don’t see anyone crying? Phelps wasn’t training as hard. He had a break, so what, but Biederman was training, he didn’t smoke pot or what ever.

    I myself am a swimmer, I don’t have any fancy suit like LZR or X-Glide but I do have Arena Revolution. My Friend has got Arena X-Glide and he let me use it, ofcourse this suit, is kind of ‘supernautral’ I got a 6 second personal best and in the final I got 2 seconds worse from what I got in the prelims, the suit does make you faster, by alot. But as Bierderman said it makes you 2 seconds faster.

    But all phelps has to do is train.

  22. MoorparkAsianSwimmer says:

    First off, for those who didn’t know this, even if Phelps wanted to wear an Arena X-Glide, he wouldn’t be able to due to the contract obligations he has with Speedo. Secondly, in Beijing, Phelps beat out the other swimmers wearing LAZRs, and he beat them by a considerable amount of time. If you review the videos, you’ll see Phelps beat the likes of Biedermann by 1-2 bodylengths. However, at Rome, Phelps swam awfully close to his best time, but Biedermann was able to pass PHELPS by a bodylength just by putting on a new suit. If you look at this from a broader perspective, it’s quite ridiculous. The whole German/American issue has nothing to do with this. It’s the fact that a swimmer like Biedermann, who earlier in the year would be considered an insignificant contender and VERY unlikely to break any records, comes to a legitimate swim meet wearing an alien-tech suit, and completely shatters what are considered to be untouchable records. The 400M free record that Thorpe set was so amazing that many thought it’d stay forever, but suddenly some other guy waltzes in and strips that record away. Grant Hackett said it was a bloody shame, and I definitely have to agree.
    Apart from the uneven playing field, there’s also another problem. Now that FINA is switching companies to make textile suits, the records will stay, and chances are they’ll stay forever since swimmers won’t have a chance to use these suits anymore. Now, the record books will be forever tainted, and the hard work of swimmers such as Phelps will have completely gone in vain.
    For those that made the point that Biedermann said the suit saved him two seconds in the 400, please acknowledge that Biedermann is not a scientist, he is a swimmer. He can’t estimate how much time he saves in an event very accurately. Plus, it’s not just about drag and water resistance. Since the extra buoyancy of the suit is also present, swimmers who wear it save a lot of energy that can ultimately be used to help them get a boost in the race.
    As a swimmer myself, I have seen what a big difference these “skins” can have in a race. With the right swimmer, that difference can be enormous.
    Another point I’d like to make is the whole “pot” issue. Michael Phelps, like any other celebrity, is bound to be stressed out by the media and his career. Like many other famous people, he used drugs to help him cope with the negative pressures of fame. It’s understandable, and even though I’m not saying it’s a good thing to smoke pot, no one is a saint. Phelps is only human and will make human mistakes. So for those who claimed that he was out of shape and the drugs had an effect, understand that he still broke his 100M WR wearing the LZR, whereas Milorad Cavic, the guy “who almost beat him” wore an Arena X-Glide. This is proof enough that Phelps wasn’t out of shape.
    Many have also been complaining how now the Americans are upset about the results just because Phelps lost. Well, that’s because this was never such a large issue until the world’s best swimmer was suddenly defeated by a guy who previously had NO chance of taking him down. This is where the true outrage lies.
    Put yourself in Phelps’ shoes. You train 6 years to drop 4 seconds, and you know you’re better than the guy to your left; you’re faster. But, he trains for a short 11 months and throws on some new technology onto his skin, and suddenly he bests your effort. Simply put, wouldn’t you be pissed too?

  23. jsbuser says:

    Phelps had a choice. He could have broken his contract. He chose not to. Same for a number of other name swimmers such as Libby Trickett. Some Speedo-signed swimmers did swim in other gear.
    I think Swimming USA and Swimming Australia have a lot to answer for in this. They did exactly what the other suppliers did to them at Beijing with the LZR. I remember the US Speedo athletes in Australia at our new high tech facility testing the suits. The relationship is just too cosy when a swimwear company has that kind of sway over national sporting bodies who are very secretive about their development processes usually.

    The symbiotic tie up with Speedo was so close that when tech moved on these swimming orgs had no counter. Its not like the LZR is Poly free, its the degree that differs. As to FINA’s 2010 suit list, it now goes too far, banning things like the Arena Revolution and other “paper suits” that are in a lot of swimmers kit bags now and leaving the LZR on the list. Loudest mouths seem to carry the most weight in this process.

    In Australia we brought in rules for Age level swimmers that restricted use of full length suits and suits with zips. It made sense and kept the cost down a bit. Open swimmers could wear anything from the FINA 2009 list. Now we have the stupid situation where the FINA 2010 list is more restrictive and an Age swimmer can wear a wider range of suits than an Open swimmer as long as it has the right cut and isnt poly. A swimmer who swims their Age then up into Open or “and Over” events has to be very careful about suit selection for a race now. They could wear a Revolution in Age competition but be DQ’d for the same suit half an hour later in a 15yrs and over relay for instance. They are also faced with outlaying for 2 high performance suits instead of one so they can compete in both levels.

    Thanks FINA, what an absolute disaster.

    This is a mess.

  24. Haha says:

    They should all just swim naked… Hahah and by the way Germans get off ur high horse nobody in America cares enough about you to be mad because he was beat by a German. You suck anyway in everthing except soccer and nobody in America cares about that either

  25. j.o says:

    The sport needs to go somwhere higher,but it cant without these suits but i can see y people dont want theses suits,it is very unfair beacvuzz 1 swimmer will have the money to buy the xglide but tht swimmer is slower than the swimmer tht can only afford the blue seventy or fast skin iam gllad these suits have gone away plus the cost of these suits is stupid.phelps is the fastest and no 1 will ever beat his 8 golds in 1 olypic games its insain!

  26. 55.9 says:

    i know a kid who is 13 years old and he goes a 55.9 in the 100m butterly without the suit and he goes a 53.2 in the 100m freestlye

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