One evening about a decade ago, I dined with one of America’s top swimmers. When we were deep into our second bottle of wine, I asked the Olympic champion how many of the top American swimmers were likely using steroids. “Everybody except me,” was the sobering response.
I took that, of course, to mean, everybody including that swimmer — and that, for all the sanctimonious finger-pointing by the Americans at the East German and Chinese swimmers, the U.S. program was awash with cheats.
It would be naive to assume that performance-enhancing drugs have disappeared entirely from the swim arena. But there has been little evidence or even talk of them in the past few seasons.
Rather, all talk has focused on high-tech swimsuits, which were quickly labeled steroids in fabric for the extraordinary boost they provided. As soon as swimmers, most notably Michael Phelps, donned the new Speedo LZR Racer, world records began falling by the wayside — including 25 at the Beijing Olympics alone. Currently only a handful of world records, almost all of them long-distance freestyle marks, survive from before the 2008 season.
The full-body Speedos were less absorbent and more buoyant than previous swimsuits, significantly reducing water drag on the swimmer. They provided such an advantage that Michael Phelps’ record eight gold medals in Beijing might bear the same taint as Barry Bonds’ home-run mark had all the other competitors not been wearing the same suit.
But a level playing field (or swimming pool) didn’t necessarily mean the new swimwear was a boon to the sport. The sport and its fans would soon discover, just as baseball and its fans had, that a couple of records are thrilling, but all records all the time serves only to depreciate those achievements. It also dishonors the swimming greats of the past whose marks were swept away like so much dried seaweed off a beach.
And, of course, the trend didn’t stop with the LZR. Numerous companies followed suit, creating new models for the 2009 season that are as absorbent as a submarine and that turned all competitors into the same sleek swimming machine. In the early months of what is usually a sleepy, post-Olympic season, world records are being smashed — 18 of them to date — and times that won gold medals in Beijing aren’t even assured of capturing a medal.
The technological transformation of a sport that was once so appealingly human is an obvious problem. How can it be good for a sport that struggles for attention three years out of four when it’s hard to tell Michael Phelps from Dara Torres in the pool? How can it be good for a sport when its athletes resemble fencers or motorcycle racers more than our traditional notions of swimmers?
What was always sexy about the sport — in a healthy rather than a salacious way — was the great bodies that reflected the extraordinary dedication of these athletes. There were long and lean ones, short and stocky ones and pretty much everything in between.
Now all the bodies are hidden behind the same space-age fabrics. So when you’ve seen one swimmer, you’ve seen them all. They actually resemble boats more than human beings. However, if we want to watch boat races, there’s far more beauty and pageantry in the America’s Cup.
The good news is that I'm hardly the only one who has noticed that technology in the pool is a turnoff. FINA, the international swimming federation, commissioned a study of the new body suits earlier this year and is considering new regulations on swim gear at its meeting this week in Switzerland. For starters, it rejected 10 swimsuit models outright and is requiring modification of another 136 models (out of 348 swimsuits from 21 manufacturers studied by its committee).
Its options for the current season were limited by FINA's understandable reluctance to become a pinata for lawyers. Manufacturers, sponsors and swimmers would all have legitimate grievances if hasty changes were made. Which means that this summer’s world championships in Rome will likely witness a total rewrite of the record books.
But if we fans are lucky, those records will stand forever. (Asterisks anyone?) FINA is within its rights to change the rules, or more accurately codify the requirements governing swimwear, for future seasons. And, according to the New York Times, the federation is reportedly considering what would be a welcome mandate, a throwback resolution that would require its athletes to compete in what all of us would recognize as swimsuits.
Following his stunning performance in Beijing, Phelps said his next goal was to transform his sport so that its popularity extends beyond the Olympics. Even for an athlete who has made the impossible seem routine, that will be a difficult task. But he will have no chance at all if swimming doesn’t embrace its roots as a skin game.
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