ROME, July 28 — A German swimmer known more for his swimsuit than his credentials did far more than win a race Tuesday night at the swimming world championships. Paul Biedermann crushed Michael Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle final, making Phelps look like a tired man in the homestretch; he obliterated Phelps’s world record in the event; and he inadvertently set Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman, ranting against the sport’s governing body, FINA.
But perhaps more than anything, with his victory in 1 minute 42 seconds — 0.89 under Phelps’s world record and 1.22 faster than Phelps, who finished in second place — Biedermann offered evidence that the high-tech speedsuits haven’t really done anyone, least of all Biedermann, any favors.
“I am a little bit angry,” Biedermann said after being assaulted with questions about his speedsuit. “I’m also a little bit sad. It’s all about the suits. It’s not about the swimmer.”
Indeed, little that has happened at these championships, in which 15 world records have been broken in three days, has been about the swimmer, and Biedermann has become the unwitting and unfortunate lightning rod for the issue by upsetting the sport’s two biggest icons — and then frankly admitting that his performances have been aided by his new Arena X-Glide suit.
On Sunday, he broke Australian legend Ian Thorpe’s seven-year-old record in the 400 freestyle by 0.01 seconds, then speculated that his suit made him two seconds faster. Tuesday, it was Phelps, the 14-time Olympic gold medal winner, whom he dominated. Phelps claimed the silver in 1:43.22.
“When he pulled away, I kind of got left behind pretty quick,” Phelps said. The high-tech speedsuits have been factors in more than 140 world records in the last 18 months.
“Yes, [the suit] makes me faster, of course,” Biedermann said. “FINA allowed it. It’s not my problem ….. It’s a problem of FINA, and they should handle it fast.”
Phelps, who claimed a gold medal in the 4×100 free relay Sunday, analyzed his day without anger or resentment or visible frustration, saying he was not in the shape he was last summer because he had taken six months off after the Olympics. “I probably didn’t prepare myself the best way I should have,” he said.
Bowman, his coach, could not even feign serenity.
Bowman’s ire had already been raised hours earlier, when FINA announced it was pushing back its deadline by five months, until next April or May, for implementing a ban on non-textile, full-length suits. The resounding defeat of Phelps by a swimmer who got a 1.5-second boost from his suit, according to Bowman, did nothing to calm him.
“They can probably expect Michael not to swim until [the rule changes are] implemented,” Bowman said. “I’m done with this. This has to be implemented immediately. The sport is in shambles right now, and they’re going to lose the guy that fills these seats.
“They’ve lost the history of the sport,” Bowman said. “Does a 10-year-old boy in Baltimore want to break Paul Biedermann’s record?”
The race had seemed a battle of David vs. Goliath at the start, though the man cast as Goliath depended on what barometer you used: recent performances or long-term reputation. Phelps, a legendary figure who owned world records in five events (it’s now four), has been wearing a 2008 speedsuit known as the Speedo LZR that is now considered largely outdated and a potential hindrance among the slew of swimmers here outfitted in more recently developed models.
“The suit makes a difference, of course,” Biedermann said. “Last year it was Speedo; now it’s Arena. We are in a dangerous situation. What comes next? ….. It’s really important to go back to the real swimming.”
On that point, Phelps agreed: “Technology ….. has changed the sport completely. Now it’s not swimming. You hear a headline; it’s always, ‘Who’s wearing what suit?’ It’s not swimming. I’m looking forward to the day we can call our sport swimming again.”
Biedermann, who had never before won an Olympic or world championship medal, cut four seconds off of his time since last year in the 200 free and more than seven seconds in the 400 free. He was ranked ninth and 21st in the world in those events, respectively, in 2008.
Bowman noted that it took five years for Phelps to make those sorts of leaps.
“It’s taken this guy 11 months?” he said. “That’s an amazing training program. I’d love to know how it works.”
Though the suits might explain why Biedermann is going faster, they don’t explain why Phelps hasn’t been as sharp here as he was at last year’s Summer Games. His freestyle stroke, in particular, has not been up to his usual standard. Leading off the 4×100 free relay, Phelps posted a slower time than he did at the Olympics.
“I’m not happy,” Phelps said. “I mean, I know I didn’t train very much this year, and for right now I’ll take it, but I’m not very pleased.”
In the 200 free, Phelps got out faster but was passed in the first 50 meters by Biedermann. Bowman suggested that the latest suits — which aid buoyancy and make swimmers sleeker through the water — help swimmers start effortlessly and finish with more energy. Whatever the reason, Phelps could never recover Tuesday, fading in the last 25 meters rather than closing. He did, however, come back later that night and qualify for the 200 butterfly final with the second-best time (1 minute, 53.48 seconds).
“I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without a suit, of course,” Biedermann said, adding later: “Maybe Michael was not in the best shape, like in Beijing. I think maybe when he is in better shape he could beat me, but for the moment, I am faster.”