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Faster Swimsuits:A Counterrevolution against Technological Progress?

Posted by: Michael Mandel on August 03

The point of competitive swimming is to go faster, right? So why ban form-fitting high-tech swimsuits which help competitors go faster? Here’s an excerpt from a Newark Star-Ledger piece on high-tech swimsuits:

Turns out, the LZR suits were just the beginning. In the past 18 months, Speedo’s design led to a procession of knock-off, high-tech bodysuits trending even faster and more like buoyant rubber wet suits. More than 150 world records (and counting) have fallen in these various suits, pushing the boundary of technology’s impact — until FINA, swimming’s international governing body, finally pushed back on July 24.

The result: A near-unanimous vote by its member nations to ban these high-tech suits — as well as any form of bodysuit or non-textile material — starting Jan. 1, 2010. The new rules will dial back swimsuit technology a decade, more extreme than some expected, but should also slow the assault on the record books and halt the manufacturers’ technological race.

Okay, this is not the steroid debate, where people could argue that steroids are both illegal and also potentially harmful. The new swimsuits are legal; no swimmers will be hurt by wearing the swimsuits; and they are potentially available to everyone.

I can understand, if you’ve trained for years under one set of conditions, that you might be upset. But banning them?

The question is whether this counterrevolution against technological progress in swimming is a harbinger of things to come in other areas of the economy. A distrust of innovation, a distaste for change. I’d hate to think so.

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Reader Comments

Kwadwo Sampany-Kessie

August 3, 2009 05:25 PM

Maybe the ruling is a little severe, but as a former swimmer I can see how world records were falling more as a result of the new swimsuit technology than due to actual improvement on the part of the individual swimmers.

I understand that the swimsuits were legal, but a swimsuit that compresses your body (core and large muscle groups) into a more aerodynamic shape seems like too much of a technological advantage against the clock.

In a sport (like many) where milliseconds can make the difference and represent great human achievement, maybe it is better for "the clock" if more emphasis was put on human effort than technology.

When I was swimming in high school 10 years ago, putting Vaseline all over your body was illegal. Vaseline also was available to EVERYONE.


August 3, 2009 06:07 PM

What needs to happen is that people need to stop trying to beat such idiotic records, like it really matters who runs the fastest or who eats the most hot dogs in the least time. New sports will soon spring up, driven by internet distribution, that will shove aside such idiotic sports of the past, such as races or baseball or football. It's only a matter of time. :)


August 3, 2009 06:39 PM

The only benefit to banning these suits is to compare today's athletes with yesterday's athletes. But many of the people that do these comparisons would also consider improved athleticism to be an advancement in the human condition. Thinking that because today's swimmers can swim faster, the whole species must be more athletic or some crap like that. There's no real benefit to making such comparisons. If you want to see how far humanity has come, you have to consider the technology factor as much as anything else. And Ajay - people will get just as competitive with any new sports as they have been with everything else in the past thousand years or so (when did the Greeks start having Olympic-type competitions?) That's never gonna change.
I think it's stupid for the new suits to be banned.


August 3, 2009 07:17 PM

This was really the result of change so fast what was being compared was not the athletes but the technology. The question is whether the technology will be pursued even if banned. If not, it probably has too little use to be worthwhile. If so, then eventually as it is perfected and improvements are no longer being made, there should be little objection to their adoption.


August 3, 2009 07:29 PM

I agree with you Banning (if everyone can get it)is ridiculous. History shows it is also useless.


August 3, 2009 11:32 PM

Jr: Good that you mention the Greeks. They had to compete naked (or so it is claimed). OTOH the games were all-men and women were barred from attending (I believe).


August 4, 2009 01:51 AM

If the suit increases buoyancy it seems to me we are beginning to compare floating devices not just swimmers. Swimming was one of the few remaining tests of truly one body against another with no equipment component added. As a former swimmer, current skier and tennis player I can see a big difference between sports that from the day they were invented involved an equipment component and those that did not. Let's improve skis and racquets all we want since we must have them, but swim with as little as possible (or nothing - Greek style?).


August 4, 2009 08:45 AM

If the point was only going faster, then they'd be in boats. Humans long ago realized that being on the water is much faster than in it. The point of swimming is to see who the faster human is in the water physiologically, not who can innovate more. Imagine in a few years (ok decades) there are suits with nano-machines with tiny propellors, should that be ok? No one is hurt, but surely the whole point of the sport is changed.

Brandon W

August 4, 2009 09:08 AM

The rules make sense. In NASCAR, for example, cars are highly regulated on how powerful the engines can be, and how aerodynamic the cars are allowed to be, in order to equalize the field, despite the fact that the cars CAN be made faster and more aerodynamic. (Nonetheless, I still find NASCAR to be an enormous waste of human energy and time). In a sport like swimming that is meant to be a competition of human physical training and ability it makes sense to eliminate technology as a competitive advantage.

From a more critical point of view, it's good to see (hopefully) the ancillary effect of less time and resources being wasted on something so ridiculous, stupid, and unhelpful-to-society as improving swimsuits for competitive swimmers. Seriously... don't we have more important things to be directing our ingenuity and resources toward?


August 4, 2009 12:57 PM

Twas ever thus. Life is much more a game than most of us are willing to admit, and changing the rules after some crafty types exploit a loophole has been done over and over again, in the name of fairness and a level playing field. If the new way of playing has merit, it will emerge as a new game.


August 4, 2009 01:35 PM

You have to put a foot down somewhere. What if they made trunks with propellors? The only way to be completely fair is to have every competitor have the same gear, but what about the trials of those athletes who did not have this technology. Noone knows what their true potential could be. This is unfair to those athletes who held world records only to be replaced by someone who had advantages they did not have.


August 4, 2009 09:00 PM

Jr, I'm not against competition, I love competition, as exemplified by a free market. What I'm against is when people pick a stupid skill, like swimming or horse racing or boxing, and then waste a ton of time trying to become the best at it. We have a ton of kids trying to perfect hitting a baseball, solely because the sport's been around and popular for a century, what a waste. I want to see people compete in better-designed sports, that have more relevance and meaning to their lives, not the antiquated sports of the past that are fundamentally stupid in our modern times. Can you imagine a dumber sport than soccer, where you cannot use your hands, which are what make us human and differentiate us from all other animals? It's actually a perfect symbol that all the socialist countries love soccer, as their socialist govts are precisely the same, running around with their hands tied behind their back. ;) We'll see a multitude of new sports invented and proliferated on the internet, just as cable TV led to the rise of the X-games and other alternative sports. Finally, let me note that I'm not calling for govt regulation to make this so, like some brain-dead socialist would, I think these new sports will win out in a free market, enabled by the power of internet distribution. :)

Happy Triathlon

August 5, 2009 02:03 AM

The problem is FINA. If new products would only be allowed after approval and review and be announced and available to everyone then there is no unqual competition. Look at UCI road biking, regulation for equipent are well defined even there are many manufacturers and no one complains. Records are to be broken and that's why they are records which keep people exited and motivated to break them. Banning does not help. This technology might help the non-competitive population also.


August 5, 2009 08:24 AM

On your comment "Can you imagine a dumber sport than soccer, where you cannot use your hands?"

WWF should be the best sport by this measure,


August 5, 2009 10:02 AM

I think that it's good that swimming regulated the suits. It prevents the countries with money running off with all the medals vs. countries with no money. You shouldn't be able to buy victory, you should earn it the hard way.


August 12, 2009 02:25 PM

No one complained when lycra replaced nylon.


August 18, 2009 01:33 PM

Athletic competitions. especially the Olympics, are supposed to be about individual human beings' skill, not an equipment demonstration--that's called a "trade show". I really start to lose interest when a sport becomes about the latest innovation in springy shoes or buoyant suits. The sports that interest me the most are gymnastics, swimming, and diving, and it is NOT a coincidence that these are sports that have historically depended upon the ability and talent of the individual rather than the gimmicks of equipment evolution. Gee, if it's all about speed and engineering, and not about personal physical development and accomplishment, why don't they just issue those foot flippers divers use? Or those jet packs used underwater? Golly, speed records would be falling left and right. I'm starting to think that the go-back-to-the-Greeks nudist contingent have the right idea!!


December 7, 2009 06:39 PM

I grew up swimming competively for 12 years. When you set a record there is no doubt that you would like to keep it. So, when this new technology such as faster suit's comes about it almost defeats the point of racing entirely. If you can get half a second ahead of someone by having enough moola to buy a high tech suit and not really work for it undoubtly strips away competition from people who have passion for the true race in the water


December 7, 2009 06:39 PM

I grew up swimming competively for 12 years. When you set a record there is no doubt that you would like to keep it. So, when this new technology such as faster suit's comes about it almost defeats the point of racing entirely. If you can get half a second ahead of someone by having enough moola to buy a high tech suit and not really work for it undoubtly strips away competition from people who have passion for the true race in the water

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.



Michael Mandel, BW's award-winning chief economist, provides his unique perspective on the hot economic issues of the day. From globalization to the future of work to the ups and downs of the financial markets, Mandel-named 2006 economic journalist of the year by the World Leadership Forum-offers cutting edge analysis and commentary.

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