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Archive for Sunday, May 11, 2008

New swimsuit has contestants split

Is Speedo’s LZR Racer a scientific advance or a case of ‘technological doping’?

May 11, 2008

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— Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are smiling. Brendan Hansen and Whitney Myers are frowning. Members of the international swimming community are spitting mad.

A new swimsuit made by Speedo has caused a storm of controversy, divided U.S. teammates and rallied other countries against American swimmers heading into the Beijing Games in August.

The culprit is the LZR Racer, a lightweight, water-resistant, multilayered Speedo suit developed with help from NASA that has accounted for 35 short- and long-course world records since its February inception.

Some have demanded the suit be banned during international competition, arguing its unprecedented levels of buoyancy are the equivalent of "technological doping" and give swimmers an unfair advantage.

Proponents of the suit don't see a problem, saying the International Swimming Federation (FINA) approved the LZR and responsibility falls on other swimsuit manufacturers to match Speedo's advancements.

"It's an honor to be able to wear the fastest suit in mankind," said Phelps, the six-time Olympic gold medalist whose primary sponsor is Speedo.

The LZR, sported by most elite American swimmers and endorsed by USA Swimming coach Mark Schubert, consists of a polyurethane layer and a layer of normal fabric with no seams or stitches to reduce drag and friction.

Speedo began designing the LZR after the 2004 Athens Games. It used Phelps, Lochte and 2004 Olympic gold medalist Natalie Coughlin as test dummies, then NASA examined assorted Speedo materials in wind tunnels at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

Like most bodysuits, the LZR keeps a swimmer's muscles compressed to increase speed. The $550 suit (104 grams per square meter) is capable of withstanding the force of nearly 12 times its weight and enables swimmers to go 2 percent faster, according to Speedo.

A French swimming official asked FINA to investigate the LZR after one of his country's top swimmers, Alain Bernard, set three world records at the European championships. The suit was not allowed at the Italian championships.

Alberto Castagnetti, coach of Italy's national team, told the Associated Press the suit is "like technological doping. It's not in the spirit of the sport. ... It would be one thing if it was Michael Phelps setting all these records, but a lot of them have come from fifth- and sixth-ranked swimmers."

All swimsuits - Adidas, Arena, Diana, Mizuno, Nike, Speedo and Tyr are the leading manufacturers - must meet FINA standards. In a conference with swimsuit makers at the short-course world championships, FINA ruled the LZR is legal, meaning it may be worn in Beijing.

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