After suits came off, records still fell at Games

With swim suit technology making world records nearly meaningless, rules were changed and records fell legitimately

LONDON — This is how absurd the swimming world-record situation had become.

The sport needed two sets of records, one labeled "textile" and the other "technological doping."

An official Olympic News Service release previewing the competition at the London Olympics began, "Swimmers have not given up hope of beating world records set by competitors who wore high-tech costumes that now have been banned."

Those hopes have been realized.

And in a proportion that made sense as competition ended Saturday.

There were 25 world-record swims in the 32 events at the 2008 Olympics. In the 100 freestyle alone, the record fell three times to two athletes.

There were nine in the 32 events here. In only one event, the women's 200 breaststroke, was there more than one record performance. That involved just one athlete, Rebecca Soni of the United States, who broke the mark in the semifinal and the final.

"I'm happy to see it back to that," said Bob Bowman, coach of Michael Phelps, who set more than three dozen world records during his career. "It adds another level of excitement to the meet when records aren't commonplace."

They had been reduced to meaninglessness at the 2009 World Championships, where the technological arms race among suit manufactures over the previous 10 years exploded in the sport's face.

There were 43 world records in the 41 events at that meet, as swimmers capitalized on the advantages provided by full-body suits made of 50 percent rubber or 100 percent polyester or 200 percent frog belly. Or whatever. It was anything goes.

Those suits compressed a swimmer's body, creating a more rigid, missile-like profile. They also provided flotation that allowed a tiring swimmer to stay higher in the water, reducing drag. The laminate applied to the suits created a more hydrodynamic surface. In some cases, the effect was to make the suit as important as the skill.

With water being splashed in their faces, the pooh-bahs at the international swim federation finally ended the farce at the end of 2009, decreeing the fabric had to be textile and placing restrictions on suit size. Men's suits now must not extend above the navel or below the knee; women's must not cover the neck and go past the shoulder or beyond the knee.

The upshot was just two world records from the onset of the new rules on Jan. 1, 2010, to the start of the Olympics. The consensus was many of the records, especially in races under 200 meters, would stand for decades.

"I wouldn't say that was intimidating," said Missy Franklin, who set a world record to win the 200 backstroke Friday. "I think it kind of motivated us. We wanted to show people it wasn't the suit that makes the swimmer."

Two of the nine records in London came in 100-meter events, four at 200 meters, two at 400 and one at 1,500.

"Once one person breaks through, it sets the stage for everyone else to keep it moving," said Elizabeth Beisel of the U.S., 200 backstroke bronze medalist. "It is really exciting that even without the suits we were able to swim fast."

Before the first generation of high-tech suits appeared at the 2000 Olympics, there were other Summer Games with huge numbers of world records — 30 in 1972 and 29 in 1976.

Longtime coach Jon Urbanchek ascribed that to science of a different kind.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, the amount of training mileage and the type of preparation was not as advanced," Urbanchek said. "First the mileage went up, and we reaped the benefits of that until it reached a point where swimmers couldn't take it, so we concentrated on intensity."

CHICAGO

More