In Olympian Swimsuits, Threads of History

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All the talk is technology. NASA was consulted. Records are falling like so much ticker tape at a gold medalist's victory parade. Then there's the lawsuit - which is not to be confused with the swimsuit.

Just about everyone here at the United States Olympic swim trials has been jabbering about what the candidates for the Beijing Games are wearing. For women, it's the full-body Speedo LZR Racer. For men, it can just be long-john-like tights. Swimmers are gushing about how it's making them faster, more-efficient missiles through the chlorine.

Speedo has shamelessly boasted in breathless releases about the depth of research - tapping everyone from the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration to software firms - involved in creating the suit.

Mark Phelps, who kicked off the trials Sunday night with a world record in the 400-meter individual medley, wore the LZR bottom, but no top. "The suit really is amazing," said the six-time 2004 gold medalist. Indeed, through Tuesday night, 44 world records in swimming have fallen since Speedo introduced the suit in February.

Mr. Phelps, who is under contract to Speedo, said after his thrilling 400-meter victory: "It does give you that extra tenth or hundredth [of a second] that you need to break a record.''

The suit, seen as a major technological leap, is said to reduce drag. It has no seams; the three parts of the full-body suit are glued, not sewn, together. It is also constructed to compress the swimmer's core muscles, rather like a girdle, creating a more sleek object through the water.

But this shouldn't be solely a science discussion, says Bruce Wigo, CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. As TV viewers watch this week's trials and next month's Olympics, they should be thinking about the threads of social history as much as the synthetic fabrics.

"[Swim] suits are a reflection of each period's social values,'' says Mr. Wigo, adding that evolution of swimwear speaks volumes about the development of the sport and, particularly, women's rights in and out of the pool. Wigo helped USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, put together an exhibit at "Aqua Zone," the swim trade show that's under way in the convention center wing of Qwest Center, where the trials are being staged.

The condensed version of swimwear history begins in ancient times when indigenous men around the world swam naked. Women, generally, weren't permitted to swim, Wigo says.

Fast forward to the Roman Empire, and the public baths became iconic centers of their own technology and architecture. But the baths would become dens of sexual activity, Wigo says, and the growing Christian world "looked at the baths as one of the primary reasons Rome fell. Nudity, swimming, and bathing became regarded as sinful.... For a thousand years, the Western world lost the art of swimming. …