The Last Hurrah of the Man-Dolphin at Swimming's 2009 Worlds

If the era of the polyurethane body suit is to swimming as the steroids era is to baseball, well, then swimmers are having themselves one last ‘roid binge at this year's World Championships in Rome, and, to complete the metaphor, the ball is flying out of the park left and right. ↵

↵No world record was safe from the effects of The Suit at day one of the FINA Worlds yesterday in Rome, and what's more, Michael Phelps had nothing to do with it. Britta Steffen of Germany broke the women's 100m free world record swimming the opening leg of the 4x100 relay. The Netherlands women's team then broke the relay record. A largely unknown German swimmer, Paul Biedermann, knocked off Ian Thorpe's legendary 400m free record, and an unknown female swimmer from Sweden, Sarah Sjostrom, did the same in the 100m fly, taking out Inge De Bruijn's record from 2000. ↵

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↵Two icons of the Sydney Olympics erased from the record books by two people who just last year did not rank in the top 20 of their given events. ↵

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↵Money money, it's gotta be the suits. ↵

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↵And it is the suits, there's no doubt about that. Unlike baseball's steroids fiasco, the swimsuit controversy is playing out in plain sight. Swimmers, coaches and officials alike have all been very open about the fact that the swimsuit technology has gotten absolutely ridonkulous. Although the effect of streamlined full-body suits has been a topic of debate going back to the Sydney Games, the suit that has really changed the playing field debuted at the beginning of the 2008 season. This was Speedo's LZR full-body, polyurethane suit that was co-designed by NASA (which begs the question … don't the frickin' geniuses at NASA have better things to do with their time?). ↵

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↵The impact of the LZR suit was immediate, and subsequently other companies like adidas and Arena have released similar suits that claim to one-up the LZR. Taken as a whole, the effect has been revolutionary. In 2008, a staggering 108 world records were broken. This year, another 34 have gone down, and that number is mounting by the day. The first world record of today's session at Worlds has already been broken by Aussie Brenton Rickard in the 100m breaststroke, besting the mark set at the Beijing Games by Kosuke Kitajima. ↵

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↵At this point, it doesn't matter what meet, what heat, or who's in the pool – any world record is vulnerable at any time. Consider that yesterday, American Ariana Kukors broke the women's 200m IM world record in the semifinals by three full seconds, and Kukors didn't even make the American team in the event. She was an alternate, only swimming because Elizabeth Pelton opted out. ↵

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↵It's quite a party they're having with these space-age suits, but the party is about to end. Last Week, FINA, swimming's governing body, voted to permanently ban the offending super-suits from the pool effective January 1, 2010. In other words, the 2009 World Championships are destined to be remembered as the swan song of this amazing advance in technology that has, for the past year and a half, turned men and women into dolphins. And so far, the half-human, half-dolphins are making the most of their last hurrah. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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