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
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
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
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
"[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