The latest swimsuit smackdown has nothing to do with Sports Illustrated’s annual edition, though it got off to a racy enough start earlier this week. That’s when the back of Ricky Berens’ body-hugging outfit ripped, baring his butt just as he was diving into the pool at the world championships.
No one is snickering now.
Once the records started tumbling – again – the focus shifted from questions about dodgy fashions to issues of fairness. With three days of competition left, 29 marks have already been erased, including seven in just 13 races Thursday. All of a sudden, there is enough finger-pointing on the pool deck in Rome over who’s wearing what to put the catwalks in Milan to shame.
For the longest time, swimming was one of those sports that seemed too simple to mess up. Official Olympic lore has it that there wasn’t any real organized competition until 1837, when the National Swimming Society of Great Britain was formed. And for the next 160 years, the one and only innovation was credited to an Englishman named J. Arthur Trudgeon, who returned from a trip in the 1870s and convinced his countrymen to abandon the breastroke for an alternate-arm, overhead stroke favoured in South America.
Then came the 2000 Olympics, and manufacturers who couldn’t leave well enough alone. Speedo rolled out a suit called the “Fastskin” – using V-shaped ridges resembling shark scales, on the theory they would similarly reduce drag in the water – and the competition was on. Eight years later in Beijing, swimmers wearing Speedo’s LZR suits accounted for 23 of the 25 world records that were broken, and advances in the shape and material of the suits by rival manufacturers have only accelerated the trend.
Credit FINA, the sport’s international governing body, with recognizing the problem and promising a new set of regulations in 2010, possibly as early as next spring. Unfortunately, those restrictions will come too late to save what should have been the sport’s showcase event this year.
Even worse, it’s forcing those inside the sport to choose sides, usually between manufacturers, about where to draw the line. Bob Bowman, who had no problems when his star pupil, Michael Phelps, was hauling in gold medals and world records by the armful wearing an LZR suit, is suddenly worried about integrity. He threatened to keep Phelps out of the pool at any race that allows competitors to wear swimsuits from two Italian companies that appear to be faster still.
Fortunately, Phelps climbed back into one of those year-old suits, went out and set another world record in the 200-metre butterfly. Though he warmed up in a full-body suit, just before the race, Phelps switched to one that stretched only from his waist to his ankles.
“He just said it felt too tight and he took it off. Then I noticed he hadn’t shaved his chest,” Bowman recalled later, “but I’m like, ‘Don’t worry about it. I don’t think you have much hair.”‘
Margins that slim routinely decide races, which is why FINA better get it right. It has to cater to fans who wouldn’t mind seeing world records fall every night. Then it has to satisfy manufacturers who pour millions into the sport and won’t hesitate to bring in the lawyers. More important, FINA has to stop this run on the record book. For all the confidence it’s inspiring, there might as well be a poolside dry-erase board.
Coming up with a solution won’t be easy, and even then, it’s a holding action at best.
And remember: Naked is not an option. Those who think the way to end the debate is by returning to the Olympics’ origins have it all wrong. While the ancient Olympians probably would have competed in the buff – as competitors in all sports did back then – swimming wasn’t included in the program until the modern games. But as all those people who tracked down video of Berens’ uniform malfunction suggest, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt the sport’s popularity.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org