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.