Suits — Not Steroids — Skew Olympic Swimming

Most swimmers competing in the Bejing Olympics this summer believe they will fail without a new $600 swimsuit, The Economist reports.

In February Speedo introduced its LZR swimsuit and 38 of the 42 world swimming records broken since then were by swimmers wearing the suit — which has no seams and takes 20 minutes to get into.

Do good swimmers just wear better bathing suits or does the suit make you a good swimmer?

The Economist opts for the latter:

Indeed, some of those records have been claimed by less-than-notable racers, suggesting that the difference lies in the apparel, not the athlete.

As does the Japan Swimming Federation, which changed its domestic sponsorship regulations so swimmers can wear LZRs. Even Nike is allowing its athletes to switch to Speedos.

TYR, another suit maker is suing Speedo’s parent company on antitrust grounds and some call the LZR “doping on a hanger,” reports The Economist.

The International Olympic Committee has already approved rival high-tech swimsuits, but — by some reports — Speedo still has the psychological edge.


I think some of you "just swim naked" crowd are also forgetting that it would compell all the athletes, women included, to completely shave their heads. Long hair is problematic in the sport. And swimmers already shave legs, arms and pits to compete in high school and college.
But if you say "well, women can wear caps, men can't" then you're also neglecting the effect that caps have on keeping one's ears out of the way. My coach always told me that keeping ones ears out during a race is equivalent to wearing a thin t-shirt.

And nobody is mentioning other "equipment" of the sport. Pools that are built now are completely different than in past years in order to cut down on choppiness while one is swimming. The overwhelming trend is deeper and wider, with grates are every end that will absorb chop. And records are consistently broken in these kinds of pools. But it's expensive to build these pools, even more so to replace them.

The only way to make the sport an entirely equal competition of athletes is if every single athlete world(or even nation)wide could train in the same pool, under the same coach, wearing the same gear, since early childhood. It would go down entirely to innate athleticism and drive. The techniques and the form that one is taught shapes one's stroke far more than any suit could do, and yet not every athlete is able to get the same treatment. It's the nature of sport.



With some sports the quality and technology of the equipment are inevitable. Take pole vaulting? Should fiberglass poles be banned? After all, high school athletes regularly break the "pre-glass" world records...


#41 - Huh?


this is technology doping, no question about it.
By the way, it is absolutely a shame to have so many swimming events at the Olympics, the swimming golds are worth very much less than other events.

dan p

@ #6 - Michael Phelps did not reintroduce the dolphin kick. Any swim coach worth his pay told the swimmers to do this long before anyone heard of Phelps.



A performance enhancing suit can be bought by anyone, and the enhancement has no negative effect on the wearer of the suit. Steroid on the other hand have many side effects, potentially having many negative effects on the user.


Sports is a bit about the equipment. It wasn't until the seventies that goggles were part of the outfit, a true godsend. Up until then you could swim naked and it would barely be noticeable what your drag was or wasn't.

here are the enhancements with their amusing history just since after the sixties to swimming.

As for comparing records:

The author does make the argument in the end:

"Swimmers in the current era might have it easier in many ways, but they also have to swim so much faster just to keep up."

joe blow

think we should just laminate all swimmers and end the question.

Lou Tamposi

I think it's easy to get all up in arms about this sort of thing when you are not actually a swimmer and don't really understand what's going on. When people are complaining that "the suit makes you a better swimmer", they fail to realize that just wearing the suit isn't going to do any good if you're a terrible swimmer to begin with. Like many have said, fractions of a second make so much of a difference in swimming--any athlete is going to want to have the most drag efficient suit available. The best swimmers will naturally gravitate towards a suit that can minimize their drag, maximize their efficiency.

The Economist claiming that "less-than-notable racers" swimming record times is proof that "difference lies in the apparel, not the athlete" is ridiculous. Just the notion that "less-than-notable racers" are lesser swimmers that "more notable" ones completely disregards that notability is built by the media. Because a swimmer is more "notable" than another doesn't mean he is a worse swimmer. This is just a terrible conclusion. To become notable, you have to swim fast--To swim fast, you do not have to be notable. Training makes a faster swimmer, and naturally ability, and again, you do not need to be "notable" to have either.

I swam four years of high school and I will be swimming next year in college; I also swim with US Swimming through out the year. At all high level meets, kids are going to be wearing the best suit available. Right now, it's Fastskins, and FSIIs. Next year, it'll move towards more LZRs. That is the cycle of things--in all sports. Baseball players use different bats now than fifteen years ago; even runners (arguable the "most natural" sport) wear different shoes than runners even just a few years ago. While it's easy to get up in arms about how change is ruining sports, think about this: those are are actually competing are more than happy to have these new technologies available.



So, how is wearing a performance enhancing suit different from taking performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids? Both apparently give athletes an edge over athletes not using them.

One can also look at advancements in golf clubs, pole vaults, weightlifting suits, and many other implements that make it difficult if not impossible to compare records of today with those of the past.


Posted by Helen "Sport should not be about the equipment. Swim naked. No more arguments about whether one's suit is the reason for the medal, or one's talent."

At least the guys losing from too much "drag" might get a few marriage proposals!


Helen has the answer.


#11 writes:

Sure, it would be purer sport if we competed like the cyclists in the movie "Breaking Away" and all rode the same model of Roadmaster bike.

Not the best example, since the Little 500 does in fact require all competitors to ride the same model of bicycle. Auto racing events also typically have technical requirements for the car. It seems to me that in any sport where equipment figures prominently you have to have such requirements to make the contest interesting. The question is, has swimsuit technology gotten to the point where swimming needs those sorts of rules.


@#16- When did you swim in college? I did as well, but my first season in college was 2000...the year all this body suit stuff started due to it being an Olympic year. I tried it out, ended up wearing just the legskins (hips to ankles)...upper body was uncomfortable. That tended to be the stance most people took in the last 2 Olympics as well (Thorpe being the notable exception). You will probably be able to tell how much of a difference these new suits make based on the percentage of full body suit users this Olympic cycle compared to others.
As far as compared to paddles, the paddles allow you to put more power into the water, the suit just keeps the water from forcing to use more energy to move through it. This sounds like nitpicking but if you didn't have it then everyone would still be required to wear wool full body suits.

@#18- I think you might be misinterpreting the 2% value. He is referring to a 2% reduction in drag, which is basically unprovable and not equivalent to a 2% reduction in your time. The human body interacts with water in way too complicated a way to get a good clean "we have reduced drag X%" number, except maybe when streamlining off a wall. And then because of differences in technique you aren't getting a valid reading for everyone.

@#20- I know I speak for most swimmers (guys and girls) some parts of the human body aren't all that hydrodynamic and moving unprotected quickly through water can be painful.

@#8- They aren't selling any, the are only making them for athletes that have/probably will qualify for the Olympics (different nations trials are on different dates). They will sell them afterward for plenty of money and make many more than 30 a month.

@ no on in particular- The real issue in a lot of swimmers minds probably isn't the whole suit monopoly thing or being unable to procure one for the Olympics (I think Speedo would love it if one swimmer not having a suit of theirs was a big issue and would make absolutely sure to get then one for their race), it has more to do with the assumptions Speedo is making about stroke mechanics and body shape. Next year these suits will be all over age group, high school and college meets. Speedo has to decide where the suit is flexible and where it has grip pads (since you want your forearms to grab the water to propel you forward) and etc. etc. People have all kinds of body shapes and are flexible in different ways and pull at different angles etc. etc. Will the most Speedo approved stroke(s) be at a huge advantage come next year?


Sean Anderson

@ #13

See this column from the SF Chronicle:

Seems like some parents are resigned to paying. And the kicker? The suits magical properties are only guaranteed for six swims. Six swims.


The problem with the new LZR suits is that the swimmers will lack sex appeal. Who is going to want to watch a bunch of robots in the water? To 4:18: I will agree about watching the diving. Not only is sport technical, it is also artistic. I want to see the beauty in any sport. With the LZR suits, the beauty is lost. Also, any new world record that has been attained cannot be comparable to records attained by swimmers who wore the male-briefs and female-one piece.


#2: Weight lifting suits? I'm assuming you're being sarcastic, because they've been using exactly that sort of thing for years.

First hit on google for 'powerlifting suit':

Bench pressing has the same type of fabric-based support -- from that company again:



Actually from a purist viewpoint, not a voyeuristic, swimming naked would be a fascinating race. No starting blocks, no walls, no flip turns, just strokes. Water rushing over muscles, wave patterns following over the body.

I'm sure somewhere somebody has held this kind of race.

It's also why it's great to watch the diving team as they wear skimpy suits and you see all the muscles of the body working as they start from an absolute still stand flexed on their toes (or headstand if it's from the platform) and then work all their muscles in twists and turns. A great display of human excellence in body design and function.

Charles Paul Hoffman

The antitrust issue is pretty interesting - basically, the head of USA Swimming, the organization in charge of amateur swimming in the United States, was formerly a paid spokesperson for Speedo. He recently stated that people wearing the LZR suit have a 2% advantage over those wearing traditional swimwear. Since races are decided in fractions of a second, 2% is a huge difference, so swimmers everywhere feel that they have to switch to the LZR. Obviously, competitors were not happy with this, as it looked like Speedo was using its connections to push its product at the expense of anything else.

As a side note - anyone in New York can right now go see a LZR suit at the Met. It is part of the Superhero Fashion exhibit.


@ #9: wrist straps are not allowed in Olympic weightlifting.