As swim records fall, high-tech suit faces scrutiny

Times Staff Writer

Never mind that backstroker Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe barely had time to wedge her body into the new, ultra-tightfitting swimsuit or to test the suit in warmups, let alone race conditions.

Coventry, a gold medalist in the 2004 Olympic Games, hit the water that day and smashed a world record that had stood for 16 years, swimming the 200-meter backstroke in 2:06.39, which was 0.23 second faster than the storied mark.

The new swimsuit? Speedo’s LZR Racer.

That modest meet last month in Columbia, Mo., began an unprecedented -- and controversial -- six weeks that turned competitive swimming upside down: 14 world records set as of Wednesday, 13 in the LZR suit.


“There’s going to be more fireworks,” Speedo USA executive Stu Isaac said of the records being shattered. He suggested that more would fall at the ongoing Olympic trials in Sydney, Australia, and the U.S. trials in Omaha, starting in June.

But the onslaught of new world records has ignited debate over whether high-tech apparel provides an unfair advantage.

Even before the LZR debuted, there were signs of what might come, given how technology has ramped up the race to be faster in the water, revolutionizing the sport much as high-tech metal clubs changed golf.

Not only was this suit designed with help from NASA and its wind tunnels, but Speedo made sure that each step of the development process, including ultrasonically bonded seams -- no thread and needle here -- was approved by FINA, swimming’s international governing body.

Then, at the product launch last month, Olympic star and Speedo pitchman Michael Phelps, who will attempt to win an unprecedented eight gold medals at the Olympics this summer in Beijing, said of wearing the suit: “When I hit the water, I feel like a rocket.”

One rare complaint, however, surfaced Wednesday at the trials in Australia. Jess Schipper said that the LZR filled with water as she competed in the 200-meter butterfly final and caused her to fade down the stretch.

Still, with so many records falling so fast, three-time Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband captured the essence of the controversy: “This [suit] allows far less talented swimmers to go fast,” he told a French newspaper, adding that it made records meaningless.

But multiple-gold-medal-winner Gary Hall Jr., who also is a Speedo swimmer, cautioned against reading too much into the technology.

“Guys like Michael Phelps can roll out of bed in the morning in cutoffs and break the world record,” he said. “So . . . I don’t think you can give credit or fault to the suit. It is what it is. I think it’s a great suit; I think it’s an improvement. Is it the reason why records are being broken? It’s debatable.”

Speedo is not alone in crafting increasingly high-tech suits. TYR Sport Inc. of Huntington Beach is out with its own, the Tracer Light, and could face the same criticism.

FINA will be meeting with apparel manufacturers next month in Britain during the world short-course championships. The summit was scheduled months ago, according to FINA, but the timing is perfect.

“On this occasion, we’ll be jointly reviewing the procedures and regulations for approval of swimwear, namely the issue of the thickness of the swimsuits,” FINA Executive Director Cornel Marculescu said in an e-mail to The Times.

Former Olympic swimmer Steve Furniss of TYR and Isaac of Commerce-based Speedo USA confirmed that FINA had been involved throughout their suits’ development.

“For us, it’s an ongoing process because we’re spending so much more than anybody else,” Isaac said.

“It’s not a process where we’re spending several million dollars trying to come up with a suit and then going to them, and they say, ‘Sorry.’

“We are going to them on a very regular basis with each of the steps, the fundamental components with the suit, before we’re going down a way that would not be ruled legal.”

Many of the complaints so far are from national federations that have deals with other manufacturers and contend that the LZR, which costs $550, creates an uneven playing field of the haves and have-nots.

“I think the criticism is sour grapes and understandable,” said Mark Schubert, USA Swimming National Team head coach. “Speedo’s put millions into research and other companies haven’t. They’re going to be kind of left holding the bag at this Olympics.”

Speedo is no stranger to controversy. In 2000 similar criticism surfaced about its Fastskin suit, which was said to minimize drag by 3%. FINA approved the suit, and its decision was upheld by the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport after a challenge from Australia.

Marculescu, asked if the governing body might consider revoking its approval of the LZR, replied:

“So far, all swimsuits are made from traditional materials such as Lycra, polyester, elastic or nylon. FINA will continue looking at this issue. However, to the best of our knowledge, the swimwear [has no added value in] achieving the best performances. We are not there yet.”

French swim officials, in particular, complain that the sport is beginning to resemble Formula One racing. The turbulent times for swimming and the focus on technology is reminiscent of the changes in tennis and golf, when wooden rackets and old-school clubs went to the back of the garage for good, replaced by their sleeker composite cousins.

“I’m an old swimmer,” said Furniss, who won a bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics. “An old guy who is old school in a lot of stuff. But the reality is you look at any sport, any equipment, whether it was a bamboo pole in the pole vault going to fiberglass. . . . In swimming we’re doing the same thing. We’re just doing it in the water.

“At the same time, you’ve still got to have fast engines to put people in it. At the end of the day, they’re all going to be wearing fast technology, but it’s still going to come down to racing.”

Hall, who will be attempting to win his third gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle, agreed, saying: “We’re in the golden age of swimming, undeniably.”

The golden age means that swimmers are spending 20 minutes contorting themselves into space-age suits. There is no stitching, and the pieces are bonded ultrasonically -- a patented process -- at a factory in Portugal. Low-drag panels are embedded into the fabric to compress the swimmer’s body.

Speedo said the suits have 5% less drag and are 4% faster in terms of starts, sprints and turns compared with last year’s model.

Eric Shanteau, a TYR swimmer who recently beat world-record-holder and former University of Texas teammate Brendan Hansen in the 200-meter breaststroke, agreed with Hall that suits are, well, suits.

“I mean, suits don’t perform miracles,” Shanteau said. “They can’t make a non-swimmer a world record holder.”

Natalie Coughlin, who broke her own world record in the 100-meter backstroke in Missouri, was not sure how much impact the suit had on her swim. But she rejected Van den Hoogenband’s assertions.

“I think that’s silly,” Coughlin said. “It doesn’t make records meaningless. . . . If that logic held, everyone would be breaking world records, and not everyone is breaking records. People like to create controversy.”

There is a line in the sand, so to speak, when it comes to the suits.

“We don’t even make it in sizes that fit 10- and 12-year-olds,” Isaac said. “This is not to take the place of coaches or workouts. If a parent comes up to me, ‘Should I be spending $500 on this to help Johnny be better?’ I’d say, ‘You’d be better off spending the money on lessons and coaching.’ ”


Special correspondent Phil Hersh contributed to this report.