The Speedo LZR Racer, a $550 seamless, water-resistant swimsuit, has dominated pre-Olympic meets, and its use has been praised - and questioned - because of its cutting-edge technology and high price tag.
Since the suit's debut in February, 18 long-course world records have fallen, 17 of them to LZR-clad athletes. The Australian Olympic trials produced eight world marks in eight days. Swimmers at the European championships last month set six world records. At the British championships Wednesday, the record in the 50-meter backstroke fell to a swimmer in a LZR.
Not surprisingly, Michael Phelps, the six-time Olympic gold medalist from Rodgers Forge and Speedo's top pitchman with a multimillion-dollar deal, gave the suit this endorsement: "I remember trying it for the first time in Canterbury [Australia] with Ryan Lochte, and it just felt like I was a rocket coming off the wall. It feels like a spacesuit. I'm excited to see the results."
Katie Hoff of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, who also has a seven-figure contract with Speedo, set a U.S. mark in the 400-meter freestyle at the Missouri Grand Prix in February in her LZR. Hoff said of the new suit, "I feel like I'm right on top of the water and the water is going past me and not slowing me down at all."
Natalie Coughlin broke her own world record in the 100-meter backstroke at the same event while wearing one of the suits.
FINA, swimming's international governing body, approved the LZR for the Beijing Olympics so long as it is available for all competitors. But with records falling like rain, the matter is on the agenda at a meeting of FINA officials this month in England. Manufacturers will have to answer questions about the thickness of the suit and its availability for all swimmers, but it's not likely to affect the use of the suits in Beijing.
"There are buoyancy issues," FINA executive director Cornel Marculescu told SwimNews.com.
But Speedo insists nothing is amiss because FINA was involved in every step of the suit's development.
Mark Schubert, head coach of USA Swimming, echoes that sentiment, calling the new technology "very exciting" and labeling criticism a case of competitive sour grapes instigated by other swimsuit manufacturers.
"[Speedo] is a company that has made a commitment to providing the best possible product. It's not a fashion garment, it's a performance garment," said Schubert, who has served as an adviser to Speedo's development team. "A lot of athletes are under contract to other companies. Well, they may have backed the wrong horse."
Competitors in the swimsuit competition include TechFit Powerweb, by Adidas, which uses strips of compression material at the waist, hips, thighs and knees to give muscles added spring. TYR Sport Inc. is touting something it calls the "Tracer Light." Italian freestyle swimmer Federica Pellegrini set her world mark at the European championships in the Arena Fastskin Evolution - the only record set in a non-Speedo suit.
Those suits can cost between $200 and $400, according to various Web sites that sell high-end swimwear.
Speedo makes a number of claims about the technology behind the suit, which was developed by Aqualab, its "global research and development team," with the help of NASA. It's the first performance swimsuit that features no stitches - it's ultrasonically bonded together. Speedo says that reduces skin friction and drag in the water by as much as 24 percent when compared with its older models. The ultra-thin fabric also supposedly allows more efficient oxygen intake (by as much as 5 percent), meaning a faster pace requires less effort.
Technology, though, has always played a role as world records have fallen. Schubert noted that Speedo's previous high-performance model, the Fastskin FS-Pro, was worn by swimmers who set 15 of the 16 world marks at the world championships last year.
In an op-ed piece for Australia's The Sunday Mail last month, swimmer Libby Trickett, who set the 100-meter freestyle record, called it "disrespectful" to credit the suit over the athletes.
"Don't get me wrong, Speedo has produced an incredible suit which is an evolution of the technology that we've already had," she wrote. "It's an Olympic year and a lot of these world records are old and should be broken."
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman - who also serves as an adviser for Speedo - said it's important to remember that it's the swimmers who still have to do the training and perform under pressure. But, he added, every tick of the clock is important.
"It's going to make a difference," Bowman said. "We're not talking 10 seconds or anything like that. But even two-thirds of a tenth, when you're talking about the top times in the world, is very important."
But Trickett's teammate Kieren Perkins worries that the high-tech suits are creating "a slippery slope when you create a haves and haves-not society in the sport."
"When you create a situation where some people have a technological superiority through equipment against others, I think that goes against a little bit of what makes our sport wonderful," Perkins told reporters at the Australian Olympic trials.
Even nations are having trouble deciding what to do. For example, the British swimming federation is sponsored by Speedo, but the British Olympic team is being sponsored by Adidas. The swimmers will be free to wear what suits them.
The Canadian swimming federation ruled that unless every athlete had an LZR suit for its Olympic trials this week, no one could wear one. However, each Olympic team member will be fitted for one before Beijing.
The unveiling of the suit in New York City, complete with a laser light show and pounding techno music, wasn't without a few moments of levity. Comedian Mo Rocca, working for a New York radio station, grilled Phelps during the news conference, asking him a number of questions about the suit's space-age capabilities.
"Michael, is there anything the suit can't do?" Rocca asked, as Phelps tried keep a straight face. "Can the suit swim itself? Could I wear it on Mars? Could I outrun a shark in this?"
"You could probably outrun a dolphin," Phelps said. "But not a shark."