Suit with a silver lining

2009-08-08 00:00

ROME — U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte probably hit the nail on the head when he said that the World Swimming Championships in Rome, which ended Sunday, had been the craziest meet in which he had ever competed.

Crazy not only for all the world records that were broken, but for the times with which some of the new marks were set.

“This is not only the craziest meet, it is also the fastest meet that I have ever been to,” Lochte said. “It seems that every race is a world record and is really, really fast.”

The facts certainly support the four-time gold medal winner from the Foro Italico in Rome.

At the world championships two years ago in Melbourne, Australia, 15 world records were broken. This time there were just as many new records by the end of day three, with five days of racing remaining.

The reason for the world record flood is simple: polyurethane.

Since the material was first introduced in the form of a few panels in the Speedo LZR Racer, which U.S. superstar Michael Phelps wore during his unprecedented haul of eight gold medals at last year’s Beijing Olympics, world records have fallen like rotten apples from trees.

A progression in swimsuit design saw the first all-polyurethane swimsuit launched a few months ago. Since then, times have become even easier to break, resulting in the incredible 43 world records in Rome.

Phelps, who was one of the few swimmers to break world records without wearing an all-polyurethane suit, said that some of the swims in Rome had been excellent.

“The men’s 200 m freestyle and the women’s 400 m freestyle really stand out in my mind as being unbelievable records. Federica Pellegrini going under the four minutes for the 400 m and Biedermann going 1:42 flat in the 200 m is amazing,” Phelps said.

Biedermann, who broke Ian Thorpe’s seven-year-old record in the 400 m freestyle and crushed Phelps in the 200 m freestyle, not only winning by more than a second but also breaking Phelps’ world record in the process, was honest to admit that his suit improved his times.

“I think the suit made a difference of up to two seconds on the 400 m,” he said. “That is quite a bit.”

The advantage was so great that some swimmers changed suits during the competition.

Chinese butterfly swimmers Zhao Jing and Gao Chang, for instance, were unhappy with their first swims and both changed to Jaked 01, one of the all-polyurethane suits.

The change obviously worked wonders, as they won gold and bronze respectively, with Zhao getting a world record.

However, both swimmers, like many others, opted to blacken-out the Jaked logo on their swimsuit as their federation is sponsored by a rival company.

Speedo, who were left behind and failed to have an all-polyurethane suit accepted by the world governing body Fina in time for the championships, said that their swimmers were free to wear the suit of their choice, and not surprisingly most jumped ship.

Another of the few swimmers who, like Lochte and Phelps, stayed in the LZR Racers, was Zimbabwean Kirsty Coventry, who broke a world record when she won the women’s 200 m backstroke.

“It was really important for me that I won in the same suit that I wore at the Olympics last year. I wanted to show that it is possible to do that,” she said.

Even before the world championships started in earnest, Fina took a decision that from next year, full bodysuits would no longer be allowed, and that the material from which the suits could be made would be severely restricted.

It was a decision welcomed by most athletes.

“Hopefully, people will then stop talking about swimsuits and concentrate on swimming, and our sport goes back to what it should be,” Phelps said.

One swimmer who said he did not fully comprehend the controversy was South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh, who won gold in the men’s 50 m breaststroke in world record time and bronze in the 100 m breaststroke.

“All the people on the starting blocks in the finals next to me were wearing a polyurethane suit, so, in a way, there is already conformity,” he said.

“At the end of the day, all records will be broken at some stage, so it does not really matter. The thing is that medals stay with one forever. Records will be broken.”

Dara Torres, the 42-year-old who finished eighth in the 50 m freestyle and also changed suit midway through the meet, saw a silver lining in the high standard of the new records.

“Swimmers will want to break them, so they will have to work very hard,” she said. “That could well be a blessing in disguise.”

Lochte, though, said that he was looking forward to the new season, when the new suit regulations are introduced. “All these crazy races will change come January 1st. I think we will then decide who are the real swimmers are out there,” he said.

“Hopefully. I am there.”

 

I think the suit made a difference of up to two seconds on the 400 metres. That is quite a bit.

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