By Kevin Van Valkenburg
August 13, 2008
It's one thing to watch Michael Phelps smash world records almost daily, but should every world record in swimming be falling like this?
Sixteen swimming world records have been broken at the 2008 Olympic Games.
Is it the new Speedo suits? The deeper (by one meter) pool? Does the sport have a drug problem that no one is talking about? All of the above?
People within the worldwide swimming community have different answers. But for the most part, athletes and coaches believe it is just the accelerated progression of the sport.
Swimmers are sticking around longer because sponsorship money has increased exponentially. As a result, an athlete is able to peak at a later age.
Mark Spitz was 22 when he retired after winning seven gold medals at the Munich Games in 1972, and he essentially had to leave the sport because it was impossible to make a living when amateur athletes could not accept endorsement deals and continue to compete in the Olympics. Jason Lezak, who swam the anchor leg of the 400-meter freestyle relay in 46.06 - the fastest-ever relay split - is 32 years old. Dara Torres made her fifth Olympic team this year at age 41.
And in an Olympic year, with athletes peaking after four years of intense training, records are going to fall.
"If you chart swimming over the years, it's not like box scores in baseball," Spitz said. "If you look back at when world records are broken, it escalates about a year before the Games."
There are 32 swimming events at the Olympics, and since the close of the 2004 Games in Athens, 26 have seen world records broken, with the biggest assault coming this year. Since the start of 2008, world records have been set in 20 events. Janet Evans' record in the 800-meter freestyle has stood since 1989, but beyond that, no current world record in an Olympic swimming event is older than 2000. The revelation has a lot of casual fans scratching their heads.
Phelps has broken three individual world records - in the 400- meter individual medley, the 200-meter freestyle and the 200-meter butterfly - and was a member of the U.S. teams that lowered the world records in the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle relays.
But Phelps of Rodgers Forge is not the only swimmer going historically fast. World records have fallen in the 100-meter breaststroke, 100-meter backstroke and 100-meter freestyle on the men's side, as well as the 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke and 400-meter individual medley on the women's side. The U.S. men broke the 400-meter freestyle relay world record twice in 24 hours.
The suits are certainly a factor. How much of a factor is a subject of debate. Speedo's LZR Racer, which was developed in cooperation with NASA and is designed to reduce drag, has received considerable attention for its laser-bonded seams and its ability to increase oxygen intake by 5 percent.
The suit compresses a swimmer's body so much that it often takes an athlete 30 minutes or more to put it on - an inch at a time. Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry said that putting the suit on is so painful that she has to put Band-Aids on her fingers. But she wouldn't dare wear another swimsuit. Why give your competitors an edge?
"I think everyone is wearing the suit now, so we're on kind of a level playing field," said Coventry, who set a world record in the semifinals of the 100-meter backstroke. "Technology in all sports keeps advancing. ... I think sports kind of have to keep up with that technology. It's a great suit. I love it."
Thirty-three of the first 36 swimming medals awarded in China have gone to athletes wearing the LZR Racer. Since the suit debuted in February, its wearers have broken at least 57 world records. (Many, like Phelps' record in the 400-meter individual medley, have been lowered more than once.) But most of the swimmers say it is unfair to simply chalk it up to the suits.
"You can win without a suit or with one," said Aaron Peirsol, who switched to Speedo this year after wearing Nike for much of his career. "Hopefully, our sport stays that way. Certainly, no one wants to lose to a suit. We swim the race against the athletes next to us, not the technology."
The new pools, which are deeper and have 10 lanes so the two outside lanes can remain empty, also have played a role because water turbulence has been reduced. It is easier to swim fast in smooth water, and waves dissipate quickly into high-tech gutters and lane markers. The pool in Beijing is 3meters deep, whereas most pools in previous Olympics were only 2meters deep. That means a swimmer like Phelps, who gets a turbo boost off the wall on his turns, can dive deeper and stay under water longer. According to his coach Bob Bowman, that helps him do his dolphin kick for a longer period and helps him go faster.
Aside from technology, a handful within the sport will concede that the sport might not be 100percent clean. The United States had to face those questions after Jessica Hardy, a medal contender in the breaststroke events, tested positive for a banned substance after the U.S. trials. Torres has been dogged by doubters who refused to believe that she could swim faster at age 41 than she did at 21 without the aid of drugs.
"Personally, I don't have any positive test to back it up, but yes, I think doping exists," said Gary Hall, who won gold in the 50-meter freestyle in 2000 and 2004, but failed in his bid to make this Olympic team. "The sport has become entertainment, and it's taken on the morals of entertainment. We rely on an inadequate doping agency for the proof. You're innocent until proven guilty, the key word being proven. It can be very depressing for clean athletes."
Taking drugs out of the equation, Bowman said he prefers to view the record-breaking swims as a combination of those elements, plus one that people rarely talk about: emotion.
"The combination of them all, excited people," Bowman said. "There's the suit, which is helping, but people are also swimming a little more aggressively. They find out that if you take risks, you might do something that might not be normal. People have higher expectations for what is possible."
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