Beijing — When Mark Spitz won his record seven Olympic gold medals in 1972, he looked as if he could have walked directly from the beach to the pool. He wore a mustache. He used no cap, so his hair flowed through the water. His swimsuit tied at the waist, and might have otherwise been worn in the surf rather than an Olympic race.
But when Spitz addressed the current state of swimming last month - a state in which times seem to get faster and faster with no regard to Spitz's day - his initial thought came through clearly: "Give me one of those suits."
By now, the suit in question needs no introduction. The resume for Speedo's LZR Racer - developed with the help of NASA scientists, the subject of lawsuits from its rivals, endorsed by the man who heads USA Swimming's national team - is nearly as well-known in the swimming community as Michael Phelps.
The LZR Racer - a full-body, seamless ensemble made of three futuristic-looking panels - has been worn for 48 of the 52 world records set in both 50- and 25-meter pools since its debut in February. It has also been the subject of one well-publicized federal antitrust lawsuit filed against Speedo's parent company, Warnaco Swimwear, by rival manufacturer Tyr. When it becomes available to the public in the fall, it will retail for $550.
Add up all those figures, and you don't come close to the number of questions athletes have been asked about the suits. Phelps himself was watching ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" while at the U.S. trials last month and laughed when he saw the upcoming topic: swimsuits.
"It's every press conference, someone asks about the suit," he said. "When it comes down to it, yeah, I'm wearing the fastest suit in the world. That's a fact. But I just think it's funny ... that it's all over the place."
There are plenty of people who fail to see the humor. Tyr, which outfits such 2008 Olympians as Matt Grevers and Eric Shanteau, filed its lawsuit in May, claiming antitrust violations based on Speedo's relationships with USA Swimming and its national team head coach, Mark Schubert. As records fell earlier this year, Schubert encouraged American swimmers to use the LZR Racer, saying at one point that those who failed to switch could "end up watching at home on NBC."
Regardless of the charges and legal wrangling, one question that will hang over these Olympics - where more world records are expected to fall - is how much the suit contributes to the performances. Earlier this year, the coach of the Italian national team told the Associated Press that the LZR Racer amounted to "technological doping."
"You want to swim the guy next to you," said American Aaron Peirsol. "You don't want to swim the suit next to you. Nobody wants to lose to a suit or win because of a suit. That's not what you race for."