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Breaking Olympic Records: Is it the Athlete or the Gear?

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What a competitor had to do 50 years ago to win a gold at the Olympics pales in comparison to the speed and performance one must put forth to earn the same status today. It's hard to imagine that human beings in and of themselves have evolved and improved their abilities that much entirely on their own. Without a doubt, the clothing is sheerer, the shoes are gripping better, facilities are more advanced, and even the bandages provide faster recovery, if not the ability to play right through the pain. One look at beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh's right shoulder is proof of that.

There's an ongoing debate as to whether having the latest and most expensive gear offers an unfair advantage to those who can afford it. Are the Games solely about the best times and the highest scores, or are they about testing the ability of the individual? Those in favor of taking advantage of new breakthroughs in sporting equipment consider it the natural evolution of these activities; after all, isn't creating and using tools one of the defining characteristics of human beings? Those who oppose the use of the best gear see it as unfairly altering elements essential to sports in general (better hydro- and aerodynamics, grip, power, etc.), going so far as to compare those who use them to athletes who rely on steroids to elevate the caliber of their play. As such, detractors have come to refer to using super-gear as "technological doping" or "drugs on a hanger."

However, one key difference is that, while steroids across the boards are considered illegal and worthy of disqualification (or at least an asterisk by your record), any and every piece of gear has to be approved by a sanctioning board appointed to the task by every sport and competition governing body. Rules and stipulations are in place to determine whether that fancy new body suit is legit or not, and by what specific criteria.

One key example of this is the most recent swimsuit from Speedo, the 2008 Fastskin LZR Racer. It's endorsed and used by a number of medalists and world-record-breakers at this year's Summer Games, including Dara Torres, Ryan Lochte, Amanda Beard, Michael Phelps, Katie Hoff, Natalie Coughlin, and Kate Ziegler. Speedo even offered the $600 suit to all Olympians, just to level the playing field and try to minimize the controversy, according to CBS News.

Speedo sunk millions of dollars and more than three years into developing the suit, which paid dividends by helping to destroy 35 world records in its first three months of availability. Not long after, it was decided the U.S. Olympic swimming team would be sporting the suit in Beijing. Sure enough, more records have fallen. However, while Speedo is taking much of the flak in this debate of man vs. gear, they're hardly the only game in town. Another popular suit used by recent record-breakers is the Powerskin R-Evolution, made by Italian manufacturer Arena.

However, if the competition is going to be using the latest gear and it becomes standard, regardless of what that does to the idea of what the Olympics is all about, wouldn't it be foolish not to employ the same tactics? If the governing body of the sport in question has legitimized it, there can be some serious drawbacks to not keeping up with the Joneses. For one, U.S. national team coach Mark Schubert has been quoted saying, "I would strongly advise them to wear the suit at the trials or they may end up at home watching the Olympics on NBC." What's more, massive design and manufacturing improvements over the last generation of this suit give it not only lower passive drag (5% less than the FS-PRO), but laser bonded seams, hidden zippers, and polyurethane panels also cut drag in other areas by up to 24%. Overall, swimmers wearing the Speedo LZR can expect to go the same speed with 5% less effort. With numbers like that, going into competition with anything less wouldn't be wise, but it also clearly points out how the same person gains a clear performance boost without putting in any more effort.

On the other hand, despite its obvious advantages, some swimmers view gear in an absolute sense. Something has to cover them up, and it might as well help as opposed to hinder. Austrian swimmer Markus Rogan tried out the LZR and had the following to say: "I tried it. I threw it in the pool and it didn't move at all, so I'll still have to swim." To him, putting on a glossier exterior doesn't replace the human element, and perception has just as much to do with it. The initial sensation of hitting the water in the suit — one Phelps describes as, "It literally feels like a rocket coming off the wall" — can get the user thinking they're doing better than they really are, which may also get their adrenaline going and arms moving faster. Of course, the opposite is also true; the demoralizing feeling of one look up the lane and seeing Phelps leaving you in the dust could drag you down, no matter what you're wearing.

Beyond the suit, the facilities vary from place to place. Specific to the Chinese Water Cube are nine-foot pools (three feet deeper than the last Olympics, though not unique in their own right), extra lanes on either side, and gutters to catch some of the wake. All of this adds up to a smoother push through the water, which means the swimmers don't have to work quite as hard, and the water does less to impede their progress.

The notion of comparing improved gear to steroids is dealt with by U.S. Olympic swimming medalist Dara Torres as follows: "How can you say [the suit is controversial] when every few years they improve the suit somehow? … Records are meant to be broken. I’m allowed to wear it and I am going to wear it. We will see what happens.” Those watching this year have seen what's happening. Records are falling left and right, with track and field yet to come, and the improved equipment to be used there. Remember Lamar's customized javelin from Revenge of the Nerds, specially designed to complement his "limp-wristed throwing style"? That was back in 1984. Just imagine what we have today.

Underdogs have become competitors. Rather than promote an unfair advantage, these technological marvels may actually be leveling the playing field to a degree, but it'd be remiss to discredit the raw talent of the champions within. Take away the fancy gear and I'd wager the faces above the podium would be largely the same. Changing Gretzky's stick, skates, or helmet would make him no less The Great One.

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About Mark Buckingham

  • “Speedo even offered the $600 suit to all Olympians, just to level the playing field and try to minimize the controversy,”

    and get free advertising, those noble souls.

    The sport sanctions it because they want faster times to keep their name in the paper with world records. There should be nothing to improve upon other than athletes themselves in legitimate ways. These suits do provide an advantage or people wouldn’t use them and it’s a disservice to past athletes. History is something the IOC, of all people, should be concerned with. I find the technology taints the accomplishments.

  • ps, very good article

  • Mark Buckingham

    Thanks for the comment(s). I tried to keep my two cents out of the piece as much as possible. While I do think they take something away from the “purely human accomplishment,” these records don’t exist in a vacuum. You can try to recreate exact conditions all day long to be absolutely sure the record is being contested, but a stiff breeze or late lunch or a change in altitude or any of a number of other factors could throw it off just as much.

    I also have to wonder what would happen if, say, we suddenly lost all our tech and were back to stone-age living. The records would still be there, but without the gear, we’d never be able to break or even match them again. Clearly there’s a debate to be had there, but until the line blurs more between actual injectable performance enhancers and simply having better tools at our disposal, the latter will stay in play.

    It’s probably also less of a concern because they’re making such small gains from one design to the next, just enough to break a record, but not make your time ludicrously faster each year. Over a longer timeline, going from the suits in the 50s to the Fastskin would be a noticeable difference.

    Then again, where do we put the corked bat? Clearly illegal, but still a tool, and not injectable. Hmmm…

  • a stiff breeze? when was the last time the Summer Olympics was held outdoors? and a late lunch is an error on the part of the athlete. But not using the same size pool is surely something that can be controlled.

    I do disagree with your point about going back to the stone age and never being able to match or break records without the gear. How did the four-minute mile get broken? How did Mark Spitz break so many records without a special suit? Of course records would fall as people got smarter about training and humans evolved, they just wouldn’t happen as often, which makes for not as exciting television.

    They are making more than small gains. I saw one swim the other night where two athletes broke the world record and they didn’t even come in first place.

  • Substantial portions of the Summer Olympics are held outdoors, El Bicho. An indoor arena would not make for a very interesting sailing competition, for example.

    And in case you just meant the swimming, the swim meet at the 2004 Games in Athens was in fact held in an outdoor pool.

  • what a maroon I am. I meant “when was the last time swimming at the Summer Olympics was held outdoors? “

  • An intended rhetorical question which fell rather flat, as I just pointed out!

  • It wasn’t intended to be rhetorical. I wanted to know the answer as all my memories were of indoor pools.

  • Don’t forget about athletes becoming more and more specialized in their sport and having access to greater training facilities. That’s a key factor.

  • The fascinating thing is what will happen when athletes finally reach the absolute limits of human ability in a particular event. Take the 100-metre dash, for instance. The world record is still being broken quite regularly, but only by the odd hundredth of a second at a time. Eventually, though, you’re going to reach a point where it’s just not physically possible to cover that distance any faster, unless you’re half gazelle.

    What I think will probably happen soon in events like that, though, is that the timing technology will be developed to enable performances to be measured in thousandths, rather than hundredths, of a second. That should enable records to continue to be lowered for quite some time.

  • Mark Buckingham

    Phelps was asked the other day if he’d rather have a gold medal or a world record and he said the medal, which I kind of admired. Almost like he’s realizing even now that eventually the records will be infinitesimal and can’t be broken any further, but there will always be champions at any given challenge.