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Combination picture of Frederick Bousquet of France taking off his swimsuit as he leaves after competing in the men's 50m freestyle swimming heats at the World Championships in Rome July 31, 2009. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (ITALY SPORT SWIMMING)
Combination picture of Frederick Bousquet of France taking off his swimsuit as he leaves after competing in the men's 50m freestyle swimming heats at the World Championships in Rome July 31, 2009. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (ITALY SPORT SWIMMING)

John Allemang

High-Tech and Mighty Add to ...

"It's horseshit," says John Leonard, the plain-speaking executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association whose idea of sports purity doesn't extend to observations about what's happening at the world championships. "We want sport to be about maximizing human performance, not about enhancing it through technological advances.

"Yeah, records are good for sport, but the records you're seeing in Rome are phony-baloney, a bizarre wrinkle in swimming history. It's getting so routine now that a guy breaks the 800-metre mark by eight seconds and he's getting polite golf applause."

If the lowest time were all that mattered, and the human body was meant to be a record-seeking missile enclosed within a compressive polyurethane skin that enhances buoyancy and reduces drag, then swimming experts wouldn't be complaining too much. But quick fixes give offence in such a historically minded, record-keeping world where progress is painstakingly incremental - because embedded deep within the competitive ethos of sport are such old-time notions as fairness, equality and the certainty that those who work the hardest will be rewarded.

It's hard to say those words in some circles of fandom and not get mocked as a moralizer or a Luddite. After all, most sports willingly find ways to move with the times - no one uses a stiff, fragile bamboo branch in the pole vault or makes a leather-helmeted head-to-head football tackle or resists the advantage of long-distance golf balls that cut through the air with dimpled aerodynamic efficiency.

"In the last 50 years," says historian Geoff Smith, "sport has transformed itself into spectacle. And as a result, the material culture the athlete inhabits has become equal to playing the game."

Even Michael Phelps wasn't so high-minded and pure that he resisted the chance to wear the Speedo LZR Racer, last year's record-breaking suit.

"It's all very hypocritical," says Nick Thierry, the publisher of Swimnews magazine. "Many people were in denial last year with the Speedo suit - they were willing to pretend that the athletes weren't helped by it all that much."

The great thing about not acknowledging the technology when performance improves is that credit then gets deflected somewhere else - to the hard-working athletes (and their sponsors), to the brilliant coaches, to the national federations that justify their existence and attract more money every time a record is broken. It's easy to see why some people have an interest in sports remaining pure.

But when the wrong people are breaking records in droves, the down side quickly becomes more apparent. "What's different about swimming," says Bruce Kidd, dean of the faculty of physical education and health at the University of Toronto, "is that the new suit has completely transformed the sport in such a short time that it gives those who use it unprecedented advantages."

Our relationship with technology in sport is a curious one. "Do we want swim meets decided by who has the best designers?" asks Bob Simon, a philosophy professor at Hamilton College in Pennsylvania. And yet in Formula 1 auto racing, which is admittedly at the extreme end of engineered sport, the designers have often been the deciders of who gets to the podium. We accept the team element in sport, which means counting the pit crews and even the car as part of the Formula 1 package in the same way that a Tour de France rider like sprinter Mark Cavendish can legally benefit from riding in his teammate's slipstream or a downhill skier can emerge victorious because her support staff guessed right on the optimum wax for the day's conditions.

The greatest disadvantage in sport is genetic - our bodies' designers brought unequal skills to the table that we can never completely overcome, however much we pay lip-service to work-ethic values. But we don't consider that unfair, at least until steroids and the like are brought into play. Nor is technology seen to impose an unfair advantage when everyone has access to the same equipment and materials - that was the point of Milorad Cavic's jibe at Phelps, that he could compete in the faster swimsuits if he chose to compromise his business deal with Speedo.

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