In both his Ted Talk , Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?, David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene, delves into the impacts that technology has made in many different sports. Tennis racquets and track surfaces were just a few he explained, but the one that caught my attention was the development of racing swimsuits. Unlike the other advancements, new swimsuit material was actually banned in 2010 for “distorting the sport”.
In this Daily Beast article, based on his book, Mathletics: A Scientist Explains 100 Amazing Things About the World of Sports, John D. Barrow explains why these suits were banned and the technology of how they worked. While logically people know water causes more drag than air (sprinting splits are faster than swimming splits of the same distance) it is astounding how much more. Water, according to Barrow, causes 780 times more drag. This obviously is not ideal for swimmers, so the whole-body polyurethane suits were able to trap small pockets of air that increased the swimmers buoyancy. Essentially, the more of their body that is above the water the less drag thats created. These suits became especially popular after Michael Phelps’ 8 gold medal run of the 2008 olympics. The next summer, 9 world records were broken by swimmers wearing these suits. People began to question whether they were fair with some swimmers threatening to stop competing. Michael Phelps claimed he would boycott all international events until they were banned. So with the threat of losing their top athlete the olympic committee took it to a vote and the suits were banned almost unanimously.
The reason this debate is interesting to me is that it raises the bigger question: Where do we draw the line in sports technology? I understand that the idea of sports is to compare one athletes ability to the next, but if they are both wearing the suits who cares? But on the other end, the sport was quickly headed to an arms race of technology rather than hard work and training. This has made me extremely interested in sports technology in other sports.