Technological Doping

How about that Michael Phelps, hey? And the rest of his teammates on the American swim-team, too: not only is gold raining down on them, but an incredible number of swimming world-records are being broken at these Beijing Olympics as well. It’s phenomenal! The Olympic Games have not seen anything like this since . . . well, perhaps since the Winter Games of 1998 in Nagano, Japan, which occurred in the period when clap skates were coming into widespread use for the first time, and as a result “long track” speed-skating records were broken wholesale.

Allow me to remind you here that the clap skate (from the Dutch klapschaats; it’s an ice-skate that allows the rear-support to temporarily separate from the skate-body so as to enable the blade to remain on the ice longer) were pioneered here in Amsterdam at one of the cities two main universities, the Vrije Universiteit. So perhaps it is also fitting that the well-respected Dutch daily Trouw has an interesting article out, by Rob Velthuis, on the impact on swimming competition of the revolutionary new speed-enhancing bathing suits, in particular the Speedo LZR Racer (The Bathing Suit Has Taken Over the Production).

The 2008 swimming competitions aren’t even all over yet, and already more world records have been broken (nine) than were broken in total at the Athens Olympics four years ago. But the message of Velthuis’ article, as you might be able to figure out already from its title, is that these spectacular accomplishments at the National Aquatics Center in Beijing have more to do with external factors than with Phelps and Co. themselves. One of these factors must indeed be the new Speedo, that according to the author “optimally supports, stabilizes, and streamlines the body.” But also of crucial importance is the way swimming itself over the past few years has professionalized, with considerable new imput from science on how to optimize swimming techniques.

Actually, the first sort of “professionalization” that came to swimming was that of the 1970s, practiced by East Bloc countries willing to raise their championship swimmers from cradle-to-grave on highly pharmaceutical-influenced diets. Twenty-eight world records were broken at the 1972 Games in Munich, 29 at the following 1976 Games in Montreal. Then another peak was reached at the Sydney Olympic Games of 2000, when 15 records were broken; Velthuis attributes that to the first appearance on the swimming scene of the LZR Racer’s predecessor in the realm of enhancing swimsuits, the haaienpak. (That translates to “shark suit,” but I come up with something entirely different when I try to look that up.) And then last year in Melbourne, at the World Swimming Championships, again 15 world records were broken – and this was even before the Speedo LZR Racer even came on the market, which was last February.

It’s Far Beyond Just the Racer-Suit

That LZR Racer has not been the only influence tending to boost swimming performances even more at Beijing, for their is the National Aquatics Center itself to consider. The starting blocks are designed to enable the swimmers to get going with more power, similarly to current track starting blocks; the pool itself is one meter deeper and two lanes bigger than the standard Olympic-size pool – which, Velthuis implies, also tends to promote speedy performances – and the flotation-lines marking the swimming lanes are even designed to divert water turbulence downward rather than sidewards into the next lane.

Velthuis presents the 4X100m men’s relay as the event that really crystallized where swimming is at today: the American team won, of course, and with a new world record – more than four seconds better than the old. But the second-through-sixth finishers had also finished better than the old record!

This leads to the question: “What is a record worth anymore?”, when they can be broken so often – or, perhaps more to the point, when they are broken under conditions at considerable variance to the conditions under which the records were established in the past? Where is the swimmer him- or herself left in the equation, when one can strongly suspect that it is the swimsuit, and maybe also the facilities, that are leading to these record-breaking performances? Velthuis has the rueful phrase “technological doping” issuing from the mouth of Italian swimming coach Alberto Castagnetti; and maybe it’s true that those who still take seriously pure athletic achievement (Hello? Anybody still left out there?) have something else to be concerned about in addition to the pharmacological/blood-swapping tricks that we have to hope the Olympic authorities are sufficiently on-guard against.

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