New Olympic Swimsuit 'Technology Doping?'

August 11, 2008


Speedo's specialized swimsuit featurinig LZR technology is in the spotlight this Olympics and is being cited as a potential agent of "technology doping," which is using technology to get the same performance benefits one might get from steroid abuse. Is the new LZR swimsuit as dastardly and sinful as the one above?  Or is this scaremongering from wannabes and purists?  Well, let me tell you...

There's been a lot of brouhaha because a number of world records have been broken this Olympics, and people are worried that it's the suits that are to blame, and there's evidence on both sides of the fence which leads me to sit uncomfortably on it.  


Speedo has patented it and has understandably kept their cards pretty close to their sheer, slippery, wet vest.  Makes you think it works, right?  They do report their findings, and they're reported as significant.

Dr. Herve Morvan of Nottingham University was on the research team that spearheaded the technology for the swimsuit and puts it into lay terms for all of us that don't have PhDs in fluid dynamics.  Even though I totally do because I'm pretty bodacious.

It reduces drag by being made from super smooth material; physically compresses the swimmer's body to make them more aqua-dynamic and acts like a corset around the swimmer's stomach to help them maintain the correct body position when they are getting tired in the dying stages of a race.

Cool. It makes you skinny and smooth, but does it work in the field?  There are other ways of testing its efficacy or impotency.  Which is what your mom said.  Slate reports that Joel Stager, director of the IU Human Performance Labortatory (basically) proved through statistical analysis that the suits don't matter at all.  His team predicted the times of the events accurately to an average of about 0.3 percent, and(!!!) Stager adds:

"The only event in which the swimmers performed better than our projections was one in which none of the swimmers wore anything other than a traditionally cut swimsuit."

Well THAT gets us just about nowhere doesn't it?  Another interesting facet of this conversation doesn't have anything to do with statistical analysis or the careful regulation of equipment - it has to do with the regulation of how we see the athletes. In fact, I would argue this is the only facet worth consideration.

We want our Athletic heroes and heroins to be, ya know, heroic.  And it's not that heroic to squeeze into a tiny wetsuit that literally squeezes your fat out of the way to make you faster.  Unless you're super fat.  Maybe there should be an exception for the super-fat athlete then they can use them, but it'd be more reasonable to create a seperate event for fat squeezing.

Whether the suit works or not is irrelevant. The problem is that we want our athletes to struggle more than those before them which makes them, as a result, glorious.  That's why we watch the Olympics (or any sport), to see glory animate itself in 1080p before our very eyes.  I don't know many people that're worthwhile who sit in front of a game/match/race/etc. with a stat sheet, a monacle and a stopwatch. 

So, setting aside that I think athletes of every caliber should dope with chemicals and technology to the point that they're competing like in my favorite movie, Robot Jox, there is little evidence that the suits are making a huge difference. So here's what we do: Get rid of them and every other device suspected of technology doping.  It'll be like the real Olympics, or, as I've read it, The Naked Olympics. The BBC has got my back on this one.  Kinda.

"It would be great to see the final of the Olympics just basically be people and their talent, like Alexander Popov when he was just swimming in his briefs.

"That is true testament to an individual's work ethic and ability - more than the suit to help correct any imperfections."

Yes.  It would be great to see that.