Pharyngula

Honey, where’s my Super-Suit?

The new Speedo LZR Racer suit, that is. Designed with all the power of science and technology behind it, the LZR Racer is being credited with imparting enhanced, record-breaking athletic performances to its wearers.

.

It was designed using the same technology applied to reducing drag on the Space Shuttle, with the goal of diminishing the friction and skin movement that normally occur during swimming, thus improving overall hydrodynamics. It’s a cool story from the scientific perspective, to be sure, but the public reaction since its unveiling in February 08, and now with the Olympic Swimming competitions coming up, has been just a teensy bit hysterical.

I have to hand it to the Speedo marketing team. Dropping ‘NASA’ into any conversation about your product is sure to get people’s attention, and beyond that, the look and promise of the suit is truly reminiscent of something Edna Mode might have whipped up.

So you get a bunch of top tier athletes, adorn them in the best suit technology can buy, extoll its performance-enhancing properties, and have them all feeling like superheroes going into a race. Is there a psychologist in the house who can predict the probable effect here? And is it any surprise that the competitors who don’t have LZR rocket super-suits are pretty much shitting bricks about this?

Oh yes, the competition is crying foul heading into the Olympic games. Entreaties have been made to FINA, the international governing body of organized aquatic sports, to ban the suit from competition, to no avail. In a stellar display of hyperbole, Italian swim coach Alberto Castagnetti has declared the suit tantamount to “technological doping.”, but his complaints have garnered little sympathy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for fairness in competitive sports. I hate doping, not only because of the unfair advantage it can confer but because of the short-sighted greed it denotes–greed for both the victory and the spoils. Spending hours and hours on conditioning to improve performance is one thing; intrusive meddling with one’s body chemistry through injecting hormones or proteins targeted to increasing red blood cell density, etc. is a different proposition entirely, and reveals an ugly, desperate side of professional athletics. The line blurs a little bit in situations where medically necessary reconstructive surgery (of, say, a baseball pitcher’s shoulder) ends up enhancing performance by imparting increased joint mobility. It would be a shame to ban athletes who were able to return to peak performance after such a procedure, but it would be deeply disturbing if athletes were compelled to undergo this surgery without need with the express purpose of gaining a competitive edge.

This, however, is a merely a swimsuit. An externally applied and fully removable garment that anyone in the world, at least in principle, can purchase and use. A product with such dramatic hype attached that it will be virtually impossible to determine how much of the resulting performance enhancement is due to the power of suggestion, rather than the superior crafting. Get over yourself, Italian coach. Let the Games begin!
_________________________________________________________________________________
I neglected to note that this post was authored by Danio. I apologize for the omission.

Comments

  1. #1 Luke O'Dell
    August 8, 2008

    My favourite line from the movie!

  2. #2 ponderingfool
    August 8, 2008

    Doesn’t the suit help keep the swimmers in the proper position? That would my only quibble about it. That is part of the skill I would think. Less drag on the other hand is and has been part of competitive swimming for awhile. I mean they all shave hair off their bodies, wear swim caps, etc.

  3. #3 Qwerty
    August 8, 2008

    Trying to get an edge over the competition (legally or illegally) has been going on since ancient Greece, but these suits are certainly top drawer.

    I heard it takes upwards of 30 minutes just to get into the damn things.

  4. #4 MAJeff, OM
    August 8, 2008

    It’s fascinating how these technology issues come into play. This swimsuit issue reminds me a little bit of the controversies in tennis about racket head size and the materials out of which rackets would made. They seem to have subsided, but back in the 1980s, “over-sized” rackets were highly controversial. Now, no one would even look at a “standard” racket.

  5. #5 me
    August 8, 2008

    The performance enhancing benefits of that swimsuit are likely to be far greater than those of things like testosterone derivatives and hGH.

    For example, it’s hard to find data in the literature that conclusively shows testosterone improves athletic performance in human males.

  6. #6 John
    August 8, 2008

    Shut the hell up PZ, you don’t know. I’m an overweight microbiologist but when I put on one of these suits I look like this:
    http://i28.photobucket.com/albums/c244/j_s_ph/Boys/Athletes/Swimmer/MP02.jpg

    This suit is the BOMB.

  7. #7 Luke O'Dell
    August 8, 2008

    The whole athlete enhancement thing always makes me think of Red Dwarf:

    …boxers are bred with all their vital organs in their legs, leaving the head as a solid block of bone…and in a controversial move Scotland fields as a goalkeeper in the 3014 World Cup a 8 yard by 8 ft human oblong of flesh, unfortunately they still couldn’t make it past the second round…

  8. #8 King Aardvark
    August 8, 2008

    From what I’ve read in various news reports, the suits claim to be good for shaving about 2% off your swim times. 2% doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s about 2 seconds off a 200m race. As a former competitive swimmer (in the days when speedo = obscenely tiny swimsuit, not full-body suit), let me tell you that 2 seconds is a lot of time.

    Is Speedo telling the truth about being 2% faster? I don’t know the answer to that one.

  9. #9 JackC
    August 8, 2008

    Swimsuit issue??

    There’s a swimsuit issue? Where?

    JC

  10. #10 counters
    August 8, 2008

    I’m with you there, Aardvark; when I was 10 years old, the fashion of “jammers” hit club swimming big time (for those of you who don’t know, a jammer is a speedo that goes down to your knees). Technology will increase with the times. Do we see tennis players complaining when their opponent is wielding the latest carbon-fiber racket supplied by their sponsor? Do we see runners complaining that their competition is using shoes specifically designed for that individual’s running style?

    The LZR swimsuit is a marvel of technology and engineering. In my opinion, though, we should give credit where credit is due; Michael Phelps and some of the other swimming prodigies out their will dominate the competition regardless of what racing suit they’re wearing. If their sponsor is giving them the latest and greatest, then that will make the competition that much more exciting.

  11. #11 Barklikeadog
    August 8, 2008

    The line blurs a little bit in situations where medically necessary reconstructive surgery (of, say, a baseball pitcher’s shoulder) ends up enhancing performance by imparting increased joint mobility.

    Still waiting for that “increased joint mobility” from my shoulder surgery.

  12. #12 KC
    August 8, 2008

    I’m not so sold on the `all doping is bad` argument. Let’s play a game, where we imagine a safe, effective drug that increases muscle mass. No side effects, and it’s reasonably priced. Now I know no such beast is likely to ever exist, but just play with me for a moment here. Why would it be unethical for an athlete to use that? It’s a safe, available method for helping you perform better at your sport. So is a high protein diet, but I don’t see athletes being tested for whether they ate too much meat while training.

    I mean, getting right down to it, doing push ups is performance enhancing. Clearly, we don’t mind if athletes engage in some sorts of performance enhancing activities, so where do we draw the line?

    My understanding of the rational behind steroids etc is that they cause long term harm, and it’s unethical to force other athletes to inflict the same unreasonable harm on themselves to keep up. And I think that’s a good test to keep – if something’s more harmful or expensive than normal training activities, then it’s undesirable to include in the sport.

  13. #13 CyberLizard
    August 8, 2008

    Who needs suits? Amanda Beard seems to do just fine without one. Too bad it’s for PETA.

  14. #14 Mike B-C
    August 8, 2008

    It should also be noted that Speedo is willing to give these suits for free to any Olympian who wants to use them, so any qualms about “haves vs have-nots” go out the window.

  15. #15 skyotter
    August 8, 2008

    make ‘em all swim nude. problem solved

  16. #16 Brownian, OM
    August 8, 2008

    Ugh. I hate the Olympics and all their associated batshittery.

  17. #17 Brownian, OM
    August 8, 2008

    Sorry about the above. Please excuse my content-free grumbling and carry on.

  18. #18 Incertus
    August 8, 2008

    It should also be noted that Speedo is willing to give these suits for free to any Olympian who wants to use them, so any qualms about “haves vs have-nots” go out the window.

    Which was the most brilliant part of Speedo’s strategy. The problem for some of these swimmers is that they’re contractually obligated to wear the suits that their sponsors provide them, so they can’t take advantage of Speedo’s offer. And yeah, Speedo knew that from the beginning.

  19. #19 gdlchmst
    August 8, 2008

    I’ve got my popcorn and big screen. Counting down to Olympics ’08.

  20. #20 John Robie
    August 8, 2008

    Skyotter – I realize you’re joking, but I see nothing wrong with some sort of mandated equal, non-enhancing swim attire. And the reason why this isn’t solved by everyone wearing the same super-suit is that it undermines the notion of world-records.

    On the other hand you could let world-class atheletes choose between enhancements or an astrisk on their records…

  21. #21 Rob J
    August 8, 2008

    The obvious solution is to have everyone swim naked!

  22. #22 Danio
    August 8, 2008

    Rob @21
    Dude, did you watch the video? If the miniscule wobbly bits on the sinewy thigh of a professional athlete are problematic, imagine the ‘skin drag’ that would plague nude swimming! Gah!

  23. #23 tceisele
    August 8, 2008

    In the video, they had a line about “using less oxygen”, and it got me thinking: I’ve never done competitive swimming, but it seems to me one of the big concerns is learning to manage your breathing, so that you can get the air you need in the fairly short intervals where your face is out of the water. What if you were equipped with a streamlined “racing snorkel”, so that you could breathe freely regardless of where your face was at the time? And, in the process, it could be extended into a mask/helmet that would streamline the head and shoulders. Would this give you enough more air and streamlining to be useful? And if it did, would the IOC ban it?

  24. #24 Blondin
    August 8, 2008

    Rats, Rob J beat me to it.

    Seriously, though, “no swimsuit” is the only fair rule.

    Okay, I’m not really serious. Just wishful thinking.

  25. #25 mike
    August 8, 2008

    I object to the suits on two grounds. The first is that you are supposed to be measuring your ability against fellow swimmers, not the quality of others swimwear.

    The second is economic. At what age are these suits allowed? “Mom. I want to be a swimmer? Sorry son. We can’t afford the suit” or are Speedo going to give them away?

  26. #26 Cardinal Shrew
    August 8, 2008

    I don’t see how this is an issue. All of the equipment they use has been changing. I mean you don’t see them running barefoot or wearing trunks.

    2%(if verified) would be a pretty big jump but unless you mandate them all be exactly the same, I don’t see how you can ban one but not another.

    My 2 cents.

  27. #27 Steve_C
    August 8, 2008

    NO CAPES! I must insist dahling.

  28. #28 Carlie
    August 8, 2008

    I heard it takes upwards of 30 minutes just to get into the damn things.

    Well, the obvious solution is to add in change time to the race. When the gun sounds, you change into the suit, then swim the laps. That would provide incentive to the designers to make suits that are easy-on, and would provide an awful lot of entertainment for the spectators.

    At what age are these suits allowed? “Mom. I want to be a swimmer? Sorry son. We can’t afford the suit” or are Speedo going to give them away?

    That’s already a problem in every sport, including swimming. Have you checked the cost of being on a competitive team lately? And don’t even get me started on how you have to pay dues for the American Swim Association if you take lessons from a competitive club, even if you aren’t on the team.

  29. #29 djw
    August 8, 2008

    I wonder if Phelps has thought about shaving his eye brows to reduce drag, they must weigh a pound a piece wet.

  30. #30 Kaddath
    August 8, 2008

    I’m with Brownian on this one (#16).
    My wife tuned in to CBC at 7:30 am for the opening ceremony, but it seems those idiots only aired the boring parts and miss the artsy part and the host just spewing stupid comment one after the other, talking more politics than sports… which makes my point whenever some tells me how great an Olympic event is great for the host country… it’s never about the sport or the athletes… it’s just politics…
    certainly not looking forward for the Vancouver winter Olympics here.

  31. #31 CosmicLint
    August 8, 2008

    I don’t like the suit; you can’t check out the men’s junk as well as with the traditional speedos. Bummer.

  32. #32 llysenwi
    August 8, 2008

    Shouldn’t the suit effect be easy to test, even with all the marketing? During training, have Michael Phelps, Amanda Beard et al. swim with a real suit and a Placebo suit (not quite as fancy fabric) and compare the times.

    Swimming naked would not equalize things. Some have more, ahem, “drag” than others.

  33. #33 John C. Randolph
    August 8, 2008

    I object to the suits on two grounds.

    Then…. Don’t buy one!

    -jcr


  34. In Neglect by Robert Frost – 1913

    They leave us so to the way we took,
    As two in whom they were proved mistaken,
    That we sit sometimes in the wayside nook,
    With mischievous, vagrant, seraphic look,
    And try if we cannot feel forsaken.

  35. #35 SR
    August 8, 2008

    I’m not an athlete (well, swim team while in school, that doesn’t really count), but I don’t see what the problem with doping is. Why shouldn’t athletes be allowed to enhance their performance any way possible? It’s their choice. Is the objection one of skill? But not everyone is born with the same physical abilities — what of those who aren’t as strong, or naturally cannot hold as much air? Should we handicap their competition, to remove physical considerations and focus only on skill?

  36. #36 amk
    August 8, 2008

    If nude Olympics was good enough for the ancient Greeks, it’s good enough for us.

    Also, we’d need more underwater cameras.

    Swimming naked would not equalize things. Some have more, ahem, “drag” than others.

    Got to be a problem anyway, especially with the women.

  37. #37 Benjamin Franklin
    August 8, 2008

    Danio-

    I apologize for my semi-snarky response yesterday, but might I suggest a question for a post on this blog?

    On PZ’s spot on the Jim & Ben show the other day, the host presented the question – “Now do you have any observed examples of evolution? I would like to get some actual science that would explain this. Something we could sink our teeth into. The common man…”

    PZ responded with evidence of observed speciation of lizards in the Mediterranean.

    How would you have answered, and what did you think of PZ’s response?

    This might also be a great question for all of the readers and posters at Pharyngula. What is the best, most convincing scientific evidence supporting the theory of evolution?

  38. #38 Sarcastro
    August 8, 2008

    What’s so controversial about doing it in the nude? The Olympic Games have been held 322 times. 292 of them mandated that all the athletes perform in the nude.

  39. #39 eddie
    August 8, 2008

    Way back in ’88 when I was an engineering student, I read an article in an engineering journal, all about shark skin and how it’s roughness reduced drag by keeping vortices small. It speculated that soon all container ships would save a fortune in fuel and stuff. Progress, eh!

  40. #40 King Aardvark
    August 8, 2008

    Counters, you must be pretty young then. They were just starting with those things (I didn’t know they had a name) when I stopped.

    Technology has never really been included in arguments about illegal doping before. There are fairness issues of course, in that the equipment has to be affordable enough that all serious competitors can get it (don’t read that to mean cheap, of course). Swimming, even with the new suits, is still cheaper than more equipment-reliant sports like hockey.

  41. #41 notthedroids
    August 8, 2008

    I believe that the rate at which world records have been broken is prima facie evidence of the suit’s effect. They’ve had full-body speedsuits for years, but none as effective.

    The person who posted about the snorkel is getting at why this is a true dilemma for the sport of swimming. I think for most people it is obvious that things like snorkels, fins, handpaddles, etc, should be disallowed. But a swimsuit? Well, if it is indeed performance-enhancing, it seems that it would make sense to ban it.

  42. #42 Bill Dauphin
    August 8, 2008

    The problem for some of these swimmers is that they’re contractually obligated to wear the suits that their sponsors provide them, so they can’t take advantage of Speedo’s offer.

    I heard recently that at least one of the competing sponsors (Nike?) had cleared its athletes to use the Speedo suits. My guess is those companies care far more about selling sneakers and general-purpose active wear than about selling actual competitve suits: It helps the brand when their athletes win (esp. at the Olympics), and that’s far more important than what equipment the athletes are actually using.

    Re swimming naked: It wouldn’t help… we’d just end up listening to arguments about unfair shaving patterns and drag-reducing skin creams.

  43. #43 Longstreet63
    August 8, 2008

    I say if it takes 2% off your time, then it’s an artifical performance enhancer and shouldn’t be allowed. Anything that has a non-neutral effect on performance should not be allowed. Otherwise we’ll just end up strapping on fully-enclosed jet-powered minisubs in the end. After all, it’s just a matter of degree.

    What skills are we actually testing here, anyway? Is the object just to get to the other end of the pool quickly or is it some kind of athletic thing? If it isn’t firmly decided, then it will become the former. If competitors want to swim faster, then they should learn to swim faster.

    Oddly, auto racing has the opposite problem: The cars go too fast and must be handicapped. But then, that sport is about technology, anyway, so it still has some validity.

    I vote ‘swim naked.’

    Steve “Perhaps udders make good rudders” James

  44. #44 Barklikeadog
    August 8, 2008

    “Perhaps udders make good rudders”

    That’s just goofy

  45. #45 Cardinal Shrew
    August 8, 2008

    @Longstreet63

    Should that apply to runners as well? I can certainly run faster in sneakers than I could without… not very fast either way but you get the point.

    How about cyclists? They have to use technology.

  46. #46 Joni
    August 8, 2008

    I have no opinion on the athleticism thing although I wonder how fast is the fastest a human can swim? They have to come up with something to keep breaking speed records otherwise it would get dull to watch anymore. And I must say, any suit that is not a traditional speedo brief is fabulous. Not a fan of junk watching. However, naked swimming would be funny but only if it were weightlifters swimming. Now THAT’S drag.

  47. #47 Barklikeadog
    August 8, 2008

    Just to break the tedium…I’m with Ben. This is from Epperson Vs Arkansas. Sound familiar. Same stuff still said today.

    Overton interrupted the examination by state’s attorney Williams to ask whether Frair could show positive evidence for creation science, not just negative evidence against evolution science. Williams responded that since the two are mutually exclusive, whatever is evidence against one is automatically evidence for the other.

    Mutually exclusive? love that rationale.

  48. #48 stogoe
    August 8, 2008

    It is precisely because of these stupid sorts of arguments that I stopped paying attention to sports.

    As for performance-enhancing drugs, I don’t care either way. I think a sports’ regulatory body should figure out yea or nay, and let that be that. Let everyone use them, or no one.

  49. #49 Alex Besogonov
    August 8, 2008

    No, “swim naked” is impractical.

    IOC should just mandate a list of acceptable swimsuits tested to have roughly the same performance.

  50. #50 dubiquiabs
    August 8, 2008

    Not that I give rat’s booty about the ‘lympics, but I wonder how much of the measured performance increment is placebo effect. Just “knowing” that you’ve got an advantage may get those neuro-muscular junctions humming.

    Crossing (“knowing”/not being told) with (bat-outta-hell suit / fake suit) in a 2 x 2 factorial RCT might tell us.

    On second thought, why drop an A-bomb on a rat’s booty. It’s probably mostly placebo anyway.

  51. #51 cyan
    August 8, 2008

    Danio:

    just tangentally related but applicable to non-olympiad-seekers who love thrills: squirrel suits

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttz5oPpF1Js

  52. #52 Barklikeadog
    August 8, 2008

    Just to break the tedium…I’m with Ben. This is from Epperson Vs Arkansas. Sound familiar. Same stuff still said today.

    Overton interrupted the examination by state’s attorney Williams to ask whether Frair could show positive evidence for creation science, not just negative evidence against evolution science. Williams responded that since the two are mutually exclusive, whatever is evidence against one is automatically evidence for the other.

    Mutually exclusive? love that rationale.

  53. #53 Brian
    August 8, 2008

    I don’t have much time, so this will be a bit off the cuff

    1) You have to take any comparisons with older swimmers vs newer swimmers with some salt given these suits.

    2) In any sport where any sort of instrument or apparatus is used ( just about all of them ) what gear is too good is important. Certain clubs are banned by the PGA for instance, and if the majors went to alluminum bats…

    3) In a metrics sport like swimming, track and field or weight lifting where the sport is just a measure of how fast, long, heavy etc. we like to see what the upper limits of the human body are. The human body. Not artifical skin.

    4) These suits also hold your guts in like a corrset some, which helps a tired swimmer maintian form and keep his/her gut up reducing drag. This is an artifical aid.

    That said, technology almost always wins…get used to the suits.

    Brian

  54. #54 JM Inc.
    August 8, 2008

    I’m on board with KC (#12) and SR (#35) here on the idea of doping not being all bad. There was an excellent book by Bill McKibben out a while ago on genetic enhancement and what it means for society, and he made some points about sport and doping which were relevant, but I disagree with his conclusions, because I think he missed the point. The point of sport is sportsmanship.

    The reason why we don’t let steroid jacking athletes compete with non-steroid-jacking athletes in a league that’s meant to be steroid-free is the same reason we don’t let Major Leaguers play against Little Leaguers. The goal of sport isn’t just to win at any cost, if that were the case baseball teams (or Olympic swimmers) would head out there with machine guns and assassinate all their competitors, or, as Bill McKibben suggested about biomodification, we might just cross a marathon runner with a motorcycle. And it’s not about the harm doping does to athletes in a biochemical sense – if it were about harm, lots of sports would be right out from the start: think about boxing, hockey, any sport which routinely involves injury to participants. The point is sportsmanship, although KC was in the ballpark when he said that athletes cannot all be forced to harm themselves simply because a side-effect of that harm is improved performance.

    The questions we want to ask ourselves about any method of performance enhancement are ones about sportsmanship… “Does the adoption of [this method] present obstacles only discriminately to certain competitors?”, “If the obstacles are great, can competitors reasonably be expected to meet them, with or without adoption of [this method], i.e. is it reasonable to expect everyone to start wearing LZR swimsuits, or taking steroids?”, “Is [this method] so statistically significant that a new league would be more appropriate than presenting the handicap of banning [the method] from the current league’s practices?”

    Before we start asking ourselves questions about this new Speedo, we should know what variety of answer is an acceptable one, in order to eliminate bias and ensure we are all on the same page in our discussion. The only appropriate answers to these questions are answers addressing the issue of practical sportsmanship, not somebody’s arbitrary opinion of performance enhancement or critique of the ill-defined fairness of some measure taken. Ethics has to be practical and universal, not abstract and subjective.

  55. #55 Radwaste
    August 8, 2008

    “It was designed using the same technology applied to reducing drag on the Space Shuttle,…”

    Bull.

    There is no special treatment of aeronautics, fluid flow or any other discipline to put one of the worst shapes ever into low Earth orbit.

    The suit’s not tile, the Shuttle’s not all tile, and the admen have just won another battle because no one’s paying attention.

  56. #56 Bruce
    August 8, 2008

    Speaking of reconstructive surgery improving on previous performance:
    http://www.slate.com/id/2191801/

  57. #57 Longstreet63
    August 8, 2008

    @ Cardinal 45
    Should that apply to runners as well? I can certainly run faster in sneakers than I could without… not very fast either way but you get the point.

    How about cyclists? They have to use technology.
    ______________________________________________

    Some runners have won barefoot, and I suspect that, say, adding giant springs to your shoes to create an advantage is going to remain illegal–even if they are substitutes for your legs. I’d be up for the runners to all run barefoot, myself. Fairer to design the track to spare the feet equally.

    And, yes, cyclists use technology–that’s essential to the sport. Thus technology is part of the test–or rather, the ability to make best use of the technology is. Kayaking, too. One needs a boat. If the test is just about how they handle the kayak, they ought to have identical boats. But it’s about both.

    Swimming, however, is not really about the ability to manipulate a suit.

    Steve “Not yet, anyway.” James

  58. #58 Joo Carvas
    August 8, 2008

    Hello PZ (or is it Pzed??…always laugh at that joke from Dawkins)…

    Congrats for the wonderful blog, and for your courage to fight all the religious crap you are surrounded by.

    I just want to add to this post, that the Speedo suits were developed, patented and are produced in Portugal. I’m Portuguese by the way…so…NASA my ass…This is European tech!!

    I’m Portuguese by the way.

    Cheers

  59. #59 Bride of Shrek OM
    August 8, 2008

    I have no real opinions on the suit, I just wish they’d get rid of that stain on the underpants of the Olympic ideal- synchronised “swimming”. Swimming my arse. More like fannying about in the water wearing false friggin eyelashes, 2 inch nails and making moo eyes at the judges. Bah humbug.

  60. #60 eric taylor
    August 8, 2008

    the problem with those suits is that they pretend to have less drag, but the truth of the matter is, when you shave the human body, you don’t get an appreciable effect by switching to an lzr suit, it’s truth that differences in times in the hundreds or thousands of a second make a difference in swimming, but the difference in coefficient of drag doesn’t make a difference.

    Almost all of the effect of better times is due to increased buoyancy, even a few grams of buoyancy can give you much better times because you are putting the neoprene where it helps the most, near the legs, so that the swimmer can expend more energy going forward and use less staying horizontal.

    Neoprene has been banned before, and for some reason the Olympic committee has let it through for 2008.

    Look, the suit floats. It provides buoyancy. It should be banned. What do you want next, that the swimmers float on a canoe and paddle with their arms?

  61. #61 Becca
    August 8, 2008

    Folks who don’t like the suits because they make it diffcult to compare world records either
    1) were never competitive swimmers or
    2) aren’t thinking very hard.
    There are any number of reasons athletes who never go head-to-head can’t be directly compared.

    For the non-swimmers: First, lane lines [the plastic floating things that divide lanes] are not universal. Well-designed lane lines minimize splash from one swimmer’s lane causing turbulance in another lane. This is a non-trivial effect- in most pools I’ve been in, you can feel a strong difference between having a swimmer in the lane next to you vs. being the only one in the water. Second, deeper water also leads to less turbulance. FINA requires pools to be at least 2.0m deep, but some are deeper.
    For these reasons (and others), some pools are known as “fast pools”.
    Also, the technology of pool-safety will probably (hopefully!) change. Anyone who thinks chlorine doesn’t affect speed has never entered a pool room where the chlorine concentration was way off. It’s difficult to breath when you are just sitting there, let alone swimming at Olympic speeds.
    Besides this, there are other subtle factors that make it difficult to compare athletes who don’t go head-to-head (e.g. how much does the roar of the crowd matter? What about having someone pacing you in the lane adjacent?).
    I believe as long as everyone competing has access to these suits, it’s perfectly fair. And probably the least of our problems in terms of comparing athletes from different races.

  62. #62 efrique
    August 8, 2008

    Why shouldn’t athletes be allowed to enhance their performance any way possible?

    Okay. When we line up for the 100 metres, you can be so hoppped up on steroids you can lift a bus with your left ear, … and I’ll be bringing a motorbike.

  63. #63 JoJo
    August 8, 2008

    Swimming, even with the new suits, is still cheaper than more equipment-reliant sports like hockey.

    I used to race sailboats. A new International Soling fully equipped for racing costs approximately $30,000 plus sails and trailer. In an effort to keep costs down, racing rules now limit each boat to only five sails (a main, two jibs, and two spinnakers.

    Soling

  64. #64 John Morales
    August 8, 2008

    Bah. I’d watch some Olympics if I could do so without the stupid ceremonies and the breathless commentary and the parochialism and the focus on winning at all costs and the endless advertising.

    /rant

  65. #65 crossbuck
    August 8, 2008

    Interesting in how to balance competitiveness with fairness. In golf, there have been advances which were outright banned due to being too much of an advantage, while others are approved. They test each new technology to see how it will affect the game. It seems that anyone shattering a record while in this suit, where the original record was obtained without it may not have really done better as an athlete, but just relied on technology. Not what I expect from what is supposed to be a purely physical event.

  66. #66 amphiox
    August 8, 2008

    JoJo #63: Over 100m you might still lose. Remember Ben Johnson’s gimmic race with the car and the horse? He beat the car. It would depend on the terrain, but over certain types of rough terrain, over short distances, a well trained runner will beat a wheeled vehicle, even if the vehicle doesn’t break down. (The key is in the start)

    Also, over a very long distance, in hot weather, a well trained human will outrun every other terrestrial animal on this planet.

    A human’s athletic potential is frequently much greater than most of us presume.

  67. #67 amphiox
    August 8, 2008

    KC #12: It would be unethical if you took the drug and didn’t tell anyone.

    There are three main problems with performance enhancing drugs. Your hypothetical eliminates #3, that of safety, but not the other two.

    Number 1: Fairness. All competitors are supposed to start on a level playing field. Performance enhancing drugs provide a hidden advantage that other competitors cannot anticipate or prepare for.

    Number 2: Honesty. The audience celebrates athletic competitons as showcases of human achievement. The athlete who takes performance enhancing drugs misrepresents himself to the audience as a “naturally” trained athlete.

    A new technology, once legalized by the governing body of the sport in question, does not fall afoul of 1 or 2, because everyone can see you use the tech, and everyone has theoretical access to it.

    If the organizations responsible for athletic competitions changed their rules, and allowed steroids to be used, with the condition that all steroid use had to be pre-declared prior to the competition, (full details – all drugs, doses and regimens) I would not see an ethical problem with that. However the audience as a collective whole may see such a competition in a different light than one where drugs are not allowed, and thus the third important property of such contests, that of entertainment, may be affected.

  68. #68 Conor H.
    August 8, 2008

    Not to brag or anything… but Dr. Rick Sharp, who I got to work with a little as an undergrad, helped out with this thing. Here’s a link:

    http://www.public.iastate.edu/~nscentral/video/08/aug8.shtml

  69. #69 JoJo
    August 8, 2008

    amphiox #66

    JoJo #63: Over 100m you might still lose. Remember Ben Johnson’s gimmic race with the car and the horse? He beat the car. It would depend on the terrain, but over certain types of rough terrain, over short distances, a well trained runner will beat a wheeled vehicle

    I think you misunderstand my point. I was giving an example of a sport requiring very expensive equipment. I picked Solings because (a) they used to be raced in the Olympics, (2) they’re a popular class of racing boat, and (iii) I used to own one.

    Any racing dinghy will beat a swimmer after about five meters as long as there isn’t a dead calm. If a sailor falls overboard from a sailing boat, he’ll never be able to catch it unless it comes straight into the wind. That’s one reason why long-distance single-handed sailing is so dangerous.

  70. #70 Joni
    August 9, 2008

    Amphiox #66: re “Also, over a very long distance, in hot weather, a well trained human will outrun every other terrestrial animal on this planet.”

    Providing the terrestrial animal does not eat you in the first 2m.

  71. #71 Rayven Alandria
    August 9, 2008

    I am on the fence about issues such as this. On one hand I love technology, but one the other hand I can see it becoming an unfair advantage. I can envision a future in which artificial enhancement would give an athlete an unfair advantage. Where do we draw the line? I haven’t clue. What if joint replacement advances to the point that it creates super athletes? Hell, what about full body cybernetics? (I have fantasies about my brain being placed in a super-human cyber body someday.)At some point it will become unfair. Perhaps they should have “all natural” Olympics and “cyber/enhanced Olympics”. Science is so utterly cool, but when it comes to competitive sports we will have o draw the line somewhere.

  72. #72 travc
    August 9, 2008

    I second (third?) the ‘just go nude’ solution. Really!
    The only major problem would be loosing all the $… though that might be more of benefit actually.

    As for some people having a natural advantages or liabilities, um… isn’t that already kindof the point? Yeah, hard work and training are necessary, but not sufficient at Olympic levels.

    I’ll also chime in for augmented human games… Hell, let robots in too. It is a completely different thing, but actually way more interesting for folks like me (everything is very much a team sport… and the team is mostly engineers and scientists!)

  73. #73 Pat Silver
    August 9, 2008

    As soon as you have any sport which requires equipment other than the naked human body you are into the potential for technology affecting performance. You might as well accept that and work with it rather than rail against it.

  74. #74 Arnosium Upinarum
    August 9, 2008

    Okay, so after over 2 millennia we’ve all worked ourselves into an absolutely blithering frenzy of mass hysterical ejaculation celebrating (or worshipping) COMPETITION every Olympics.

    You know, that ‘contest” thang: Winning. Victory. Conquest. Beating the opponent. Showing off to everybody you are The Best, the King of the Hill.

    [testing...testing...testing...]

    All on something as pathetic as a “judgement”.

    YAWN…ZZZZZzzzzzz

    No, fine, it’s cool. It’s exciting. Stupendous. Collosal. It’s precisely what we’ve decided humans are all about, haven’t we?

    Almost everybody loves to watch the world’s very finest physical specimen-specialists do their incredible thing. To watch brave atheletes overcome enormous emotional and physical pressure to prevail amidst the most challenging circumstances.

    To watch with the prospect of witnessing never-before-recorded extremes of running, jumping, and leaping.

    To watch almost pathologically-muscle-bound individuals strain to lift immense weights of over a quarter of a ton…sometimes over their heads. (“Oh, you think THAT’s something, do you? WATCH THIS!”) That stuff is, after all, amazing and exciting to watch.

    What a MAGNIFICENT exhibition of human wherewithal it is, along with the pomp and circumstance of it’s display!!! CHEER CHEER CHEERS!!!

    The RACE is at the very core of the experience: who can get to a spot first. Who can arrive at a finish line before anyone else does. Who can reflexively move the most swiftly to overcome a challenge. Who can throw their bodies around with the most stylish panache. Contests of speed, strength, endurance, and, uh, determination. In any event, it’s about who comes out first, on top. As long as the judges agree.

    Rack up the points, boys and girls. That’s EVERYTHING.

    To watch races between the races…watch the glory and grandeur of ceremony, as merit is awarded in the form of arbitrary metal medallions amidst a storm of nationalist flag-waving…duly registered by paid observers to determine which nation is most worthy of the enhanced self-esteem thus conferred…to watch bantam-weight boxers who try to ‘make weight’ collapse in their prodigious striving…and atheletes stripped of their precious medals for exercising a bit too much zeal in trying to win (‘Hey, dammitt! Where are my steroids?’)

    Right. Winning is everything. Getting the big prize is everything. Hey, wait a minute! I know! Let’s put on a show! Let’s spend over a hundred billion dollars on it! People everywhere will benefit from the economic boost it induces. It will be a real hit!!!

    It’s great Greek Theater, this awarding thing. But it’s also ubiquitous across all cultures, and it has been with us ever since we were small tribes of Australopithicenes who worried about that troublesome other tribe across the river. (Yeah, we fucked some of them, but they fucked us first!)

    It’s become quite fashionable too – the world since has been thoroughly drenched in it. “Primitive” tribes often marked their warriors with a sign of distinction. We see it in what modern military award ceremonies seem to prize most: Bravery. Courage. Valour. Honor. “Sound judgement”. “Outstanding resolve”. (Always, ALWAYS, “outstanding”, oh so OUTSTANDING…a DISTINCTION as opposed to the run-of-the-mill LOSERS who supported them, of course).

    We see it in the ARTS (of all things!) with such spectacularly inane exhibitions of judgement and self-congratulation as the Oscars and the Pulitzers, and in the even more hideous practice of conducting pianist competitions between young musicians who would otherwise ALL be judged genius experts by the pathetic standards of multi-billion-dollar-industry rap/hip-hop, an industry which is not in the slightest dependent on any musical expertise whatsoever, but glad to promote bad playground jump-rope-style poetry. In the meantime, the MAJORITY of EXCELLENT pianists lose out terribly because they have lost a competition and cannot therefore obtain a decent recording contract. (Which renders the whinings of those who dread the decline of classical music every bit as worthless as it is elitist).

    We even see it in the global scientific community with respect to prizes such as the Nobel. I sure as hell hope no scientists have yet discovered the benefits of cheating in order to obtain a distinctive and lucrative position at the top of the heap. (Oops…)

    Competition is an authentically real algorithmic process which almost everyone will agree figures prominantly in shaping the evolutionary development of systems. But, as we’ve all biologists have more recently appreciated, there’s much more to that shaping story, and what HUMANS do (or choose to do) is not contingent on their mindless instincts. We are supposed to be able to transcend much of our instinctual behavior with our big brains…which are alleged to be capable of something we call “reasoning”. Unfortunately, our obsession with contesting ourselves remains almost completely dominant. If one thinks about it a little, one can see why religious superstition flourishes in this particular environment. It’s obvious it’s a reflection of a predominating concern over the importance of the individual self over the importance of the whole. (Nope, all that stuff about nationalism or “team-spirit” or even a professed allegiance to a particular religious protocol is NOT “group-think” – it’s ALL SELF-THINK. People are motivated to join groups because of the PERSONAL benefits such an association might provide. That’s what gives almost all of these joinings any prospective value to the individual – the promise of enhancing exclusivity.

    Isn’t it about time we started to celebrate the COOPERATION end of things? Just a tad? (No, team sports don’t count, unless one is willing to extend the definition of cooperative behavior to include the whole of humanity). You know, Winning. Victory. Conquest. Beating the opponent. Showing off to everybody you are The Best, the King of the Hill…except that now the opponent is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and the “you” is everybody.

    Nah. No awards allowed – EXCEPT that which allows us all to get along farther into an uncertain future together with some real semblance of harmony.

    Yap. That would be an intolerably BORING version of the Olympics. But you know what? I will wager my bottom dollar that the vast majority of ET civilizations that might have managed to overcome their technological adolescence, preserved their birth-planet and since thrived to become interstellar denizens would have done so with a dominantly cooperative approach than a competitive one.

    Ya know? I’d rather be bobbing about in a Galapogos lagoon actually EXPERIENCING SOMETHING REAL AND TRULY WONDERFUL than breathing bad air in Beijing while watching a bunch of losers pathetically trying to win.

  75. #75 PYRETTE
    August 9, 2008

    Why don’t we go back to the original plan and make all olypiads compete completely naked?
    Honestly, it might finally get me interested in watching sports.

    No satire here, who else thinks this is a good idea?

  76. #76 dead santa
    August 9, 2008

    I’m not a big olympics fan, but I think the relevant question is not about performance-enhancement, but about the rules. Is this suit allowed by the rules of the competition? No doubt by the next olympics, the rules will be amended to clarify this question.

    The spectacle of beating the world record drives these sorts of enhancements (and revenue), so I don’t see them going away. As long as everyone agrees on and follows the rules, it seems fair to me.

    However, I do think it is wrong to encourage methods like doping that cause long-term damage and premature death, since all the competitors feel pressured into using such methods if they can get away with it.

  77. #77 Tran Shumann
    August 9, 2008

    I think KC hit the nail on the head. If it doesn’t make their balls shrivel up or anything like that it should be ok.

    After all, isn’t using the power of science to achieve greater & greater heights part of what being human is all about?

  78. #78 MarkM
    August 9, 2008

    I know Speedo puts so much time, and effort, and energy into developing the best suits. And knowing that they’re getting scientists from all over the world … and people from NASA … it– I mean– how can you question them, that it’s the best suit?

    Anyone else see this and do a double take? How can you question them? What?? So I can drink Tang, and say, This was developed by scientists, from NASA: It– I mean, how can you question that this isn’t the best soft drink?

    How can I question them? Easily! That’s the whole point of science. You’ve turned your swimsuit into a belief system.

  79. #79 Lynnai
    August 9, 2008

    Re swimming naked: It wouldn’t help… we’d just end up listening to arguments about unfair shaving patterns and drag-reducing skin creams.

    I was thinking cicumsized verses non myself.

    I did just skim a certain amount of the comments, the danger issue has been covered well, has the visibility issue?

    I mean every one can see if you’re wearing that swimsuit, noone can see if you’re doped.

    I was a competitve archer (and I might be again you never know it’s a sport kind to old ducks) and that is 80% mental and 40% equipment, where those numbers overlap is when you just think it’s your equipment.

  80. #80 John C. Randolph
    August 10, 2008

    #75:

    Works for me. As it is, the only events I care to watch get little if any coverage. If you get your way on that, then a lot of sports would suddenly become far more interesting.

    It might make the winter olympics a tad problematic, though.

    -jcr

  81. #81 Josh
    August 10, 2008

    Number 1: Fairness. All competitors are supposed to start on a level playing field. Performance enhancing drugs provide a hidden advantage that other competitors cannot anticipate or prepare for.

    Competitors already aren’t on a level playing field. First, some have better genes than others. Second, some have better trainers and techniques than others. If sports was about fairness, everyone would have to compete in a standardised human body.

    Number 2: Honesty. The audience celebrates athletic competitons as showcases of human achievement. The athlete who takes performance enhancing drugs misrepresents himself to the audience as a “naturally” trained athlete.

    If the games openly allowed, and the athletes openly declared, all performance enhancers, would that fix this problem?

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