Today, It's 'May the Best Swimsuit Win'
Is technology now as important as muscle?
Forget "swifter, higher, stronger." The 2000 Olympics motto might have to be changed to "more Lycra, more high-tech, more gadgets."
The success of swimmers outfitted in new high-tech swimsuits at last week's U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis only heightened a growing debate over technological innovation. Unlike the illegal steroids and stimulants that some athletes are allegedly using to enhance performance, the new clothing, equipment, and training systems are perfectly legal. Indeed, they're part of a long tradition, like the fiberglass poles that led to the smashing of pole-vault records. But there are so many innovations this year, and they are being billed as such an advance over the equipment available even as recently as 1996, that they are raising troubling questions: Are these new technologies really that good? And if so, are they fair? Or are they giving too much of an advantage to athletes from wealthier nations?
In Indianapolis, Speedo outfitted most of the contestants in "sharkskin" long-john suits, which the company says allow a swimmer to move 3 percent faster through water than someone wearing a tiny old-fashioned suit. Dara Torres, 33, set a new American record in the 100-meter butterfly while wearing one model, a neck-to-ankle suit. But swimming officials aren't convinced this is anything more than the placebo effect: Swimmers excel because they think they've got an edge. In fact, says Cornel Marculescu, the International Swimming Federation's executive director, one reason the federation approved the suits is that "there is no proof . . . that these are enhancing performance." And Olympic legend Mark Spitz, 50, is also skeptical: He won seven gold medals in 1972 competing against men who'd shaved themselves bald. (Spitz was weighed down by two swimsuits, a mustache, and shaggy hair.) Some top-level swimmers tout the suits, he says, because manufacturers pay for endorsements. "If I got paid a lot of money," he joked, "I'd wear a swimsuit that was fur lined."
On your marks. Track officials are anticipating a similar debate over sprinters' clothing. After decades of experimenting with shoes and spikes, manufacturers have only recently started researching running clothes. Nike, for example, will offer a slick hooded suit that, its researchers claim, slightly reduces wind drag--which could make a difference in sprints that are won by a matter of inches.
Less certain is the future of nitrogen tents. Patented in 1995, these tents are connected to a machine that pumps in low-oxygen air, which forces the body to create more red blood cells, in turn allowing athletes to run farther and faster without getting winded. The International Olympic Committee's medical director Patrick Schamasch thinks the tents are unfair because their price tag--$6,000 each--puts them out of reach for some, but concedes that there is no scientific or legal basis for banning them. Nevertheless, Sydney officials may not allow the tents into the Olympic village, saying they might be a security risk. Curt Clausen, who will compete for the United States in the 50-kilometer race walk, says that's "ridiculous": His nitrogen machine is safe, he says, and simply a cheaper way for him to mimic high-altitude training.
Fans of old-style equipment shouldn't lose heart, though. The international cycling federation has announced that from now on, all bikes must use the same comparatively slow and inexpensive frame design. The tech-savvy U.S. team is already working the margins--testing variations on wheels to see whether, for example, three spokes are faster than five. "We want to eliminate the bike as the excuse for why [the athletes] didn't do so well," says Steve Morrissey of USA Cycling. But is that necessary? After all, despite spending $1.2 million to customize 20 high-tech bikes, U.S. "superbikers" at the 1996 Games brought home just one silver medal.
With Robert Milliken
This story appears in the August 21, 2000 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.