The Beijing Games are more than a month away, but controversy has been rippling for months through Olympic pools around the world, the waves being made by the evolution of swimmers' attire.
And it has given "swim suit" a whole new meaning.
These days the term can just as easily refer to a lawsuit filed by swimwear manufacturer TYR against rival Speedo, claiming the swimwear giant is monopolizing the market with its megapopular LZR Racer. The sleek, skintight bodysuit, designed in conjunction with NASA, has replaced the traditional brief for men and one-piece for women, and swimmers wearing it have set at least 40 world records since February, when Speedo unveiled it.
With the U.S. Olympic trials taking place Sunday through July 6 in Omaha, Neb., the LZR Racer will get a lot more attention.
It also raises questions:
Does the design, which reduces drag in the water, give wearers an unfair edge by increasing buoyancy? Italian coach Alberto Castagnetti has likened the suit to "technological doping." The governing body of the sport, FINA, has no problems with it.
Does the suit really improve performance by 2 percent, which can be the difference between a gold or no medal, as claimed by U.S. coach Mark Schubert, whose team has Speedo as a major sponsor?
Has Speedo, as TYR alleges, violated antitrust laws by conspiring with USA Swimming and Schubert to squash competition and attract standout swimmers sponsored by other companies?
Meanwhile, Nike said in May that it will allow seven of its potential Olympians at the U.S. trials to wear the Speedo suit, which costs $550. Japan ruled that its swimmers can don the LZR Racer in Beijing, setting aside a sponsorship agreement with another manufacturer. The decision came after 16 national records were set at the Japan Open by athletes in Speedo suits.
One thing appears clear: The bodysuit, no matter who makes it, is here to stay.
Genie out of the bottle
"There's no doubt that it is a new dimension," said Gregg Troy, men's and women's coach at the University of Florida. "I think the best analogy I could give you is that it's probably no different than when they first added spikes in track."
Agreeing is St. Petersburg's Nicole Haislett Bacher, who won three gold medals in 1992.
"You want to find better methods of training, different kinds of training and better equipment," she said. "I think that happens in all sports. You can't fault it."
Bodysuits made their first splash at the 2000 Olympics, when Australian Ian Thorpe won three golds and two silvers in one by Adidas. In 2004 at Athens, some male swimmers wore form-fitting swim pants. In recent years, refinements have enhanced the designs, with Speedo, TYR and Nike diving in.
"Over the last couple of years, there have been gradual changes in swim attire, all with the idea of working in this direction," Troy said. "There are certainly some purists who are against it, and it certainly does add a different dynamic. But the genie has been let out of the bottle, and I don't see them sticking it back in."
The testing process has involved putting swimmers in wind tunnels and water flumes — the water version of a wind tunnel — and measuring where the friction points are. With the LZR Racer, panels on the suit serve different functions: some reduce friction, others provide support. The lack of seams further reduces resistance.
"They've designed the suit to be a little tighter across the friction points," Troy said. "That streamlines and tightens up the body a bit, and they've put a fabric that is a little smoother over the friction points."
As for the LZR Racer's results, Troy, 57, said, "I've been coaching 35 years, and I've not seen that many world records broken in such a small time frame. It's been good for the sport, because we're kind of low profile. It's created a little buzz."
A natural progression
Georgia coach Jack Bauerle sees another possible factor for the buzz.
"Sometimes it's hard to figure out how much is the suit and how much is it because this is an Olympic year," he said. "Everything is ratcheted up a notch during Olympic years. But this has definitely made everybody more cognizant of what they're wearing."
Clearwater native Robert Margalis, a U.S. national team member for several years and silver medalist at the 2008 world short-course championships, wears a suit made by TYR, the Tracer Rise.
"There's no doubt, the suit I use feels pretty special in the water," said Margalis, 26, who will compete at the Olympic trials. "The way the suit compresses your body, it changes not your buoyancy, but your center of buoyancy. So it makes the right parts of your body rise higher to the surface, just the way it squeezes you in different places."
But in the end, it comes down to who has on the suit.
"No matter what you're wearing, you still have to swim."
Olympic hopeful Megan Romano, 17, of St. Petersburg's Northeast High, has worn the LZR Racer and likes it, but her bottom line is the same as Margalis'.
"It's just how hard you work and good your mentality is," said Romano, who will compete at the trials though she got mononucleosis a few weeks ago. "The suit may help a little bit, but I don't think it will help that much."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.