The ancient Greeks, it's worth remembering at moments like this, competed naked.
Once upon a time, it was possible to talk about the purity of sport with a straight face and an unburdened mind. In those far-off days before swimsuit companies ruled the record books and technology took credit for every astonishing athletic performance, words like faster, higher and stronger could seem wholly admirable - the idealists of the Olympic Games even managed to combine them into a motto meant to transcend conflict and unite humanity in global play.
And now? Look to Rome, where swimming's records are being broken hourly and the sports world is in an uproar. The shocking debuts of the Arena X-Glide and Jaked body-suits have completely upended our understanding of what it means to be the best - is Michael Phelps now a lesser being because he stayed loyal to the marginally slower Speedo LZR Racer that won him eight medals in Beijing, or is he a fool for not upgrading his wardrobe to the gold-medal standard?
Sports idealism in the age of polyurethane swimwear seems so yesterday, as outmoded as Johnny Weissmuller's waterlogged cotton trunks. Instead, we're getting a stream of high-tech trash talk like this haute-couture dig from Milorad Cavic, Phelps's archrival in the butterfly.
"If Michael wants an Arena, he just has to say it," Cavic commented yesterday. "If he wants a Jaked and they don't want to give it to him free, I'll buy it for him. He has options."
But what does it really mean to have options when technology takes control of a sport? No tennis player in his right mind lugs a wooden racquet onto the court to defend against Andy Roddick's serve of 250 kilometres an hour.
Distance runners don't demand the right to compete on antiquated cinder tracks because that's the only way to make a fair comparison with Roger Bannister's first sub-four-minute mile - they know they gain six seconds or so just by running on the faster rubberized Mondo surface, and who would argue that they're taking a shortcut to glory? Tom Watson didn't trade in his oversized titanium driver for throwback persimmon woods in order to contend at the British Open - he might as well have renounced his titanium hip. So when it comes to poolside decision-making at the world aquatics championships in Rome, how do you balance innate athleticism and good old-fashioned corporate loyalty against the lure of performance-enhancing technology?
Pretty well all sports now occupy an unlevel playing field in the conflict between the technological haves and have-nots.
In most other areas of human activity, that notion of scientific innovation and superiority is a given - who wouldn't want the best medical equipment, if they could afford it, or the most up-to-date automotive safety features?
But sport is different. While in some ways the most Darwinian of human pursuits - if you're not the best, get lost - it comes with a built-in need to resist the forces of evolution, at least when it comes to technology's quick-fix improvements. Why, otherwise, do we keep talking about the purity of sport, long after steroids and other designer drugs should have made us complete and utter cynics? Why was there such resistance in golf, for example, to the square-grooved wedges that created the "bomb-and-gouge" approach to the hallowed game - bomb the drive into the rough, then gouge it out and onto the green with the touch-control that the grooved edge provides.
"It's a technology that takes the skill out of competition," says University of Toronto philosopher and golfer Thomas Hurka. "If you're watching a competitive game, you want to see skill rewarded. Once technological advancements remove the need for skill, then a sport becomes uninteresting."
This is one understanding of purity in sport - that engineered excellence is boring, that individual ability should be left alone to earn its just reward. And yet as the debacle in Rome is proving yet again, the definition of purity is a highly fluid thing when athletic achievement is measured by shattered records, corporate profits, spikes in TV ratings and multimillion-dollar payoffs for athletes who can gain an edge at any cost.
"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.
But access has a broader meaning in the world of sport than mere availability. If swimming's world championships are, in effect, a product launch for a highly fragile, hard-to-fit, quickly obsolescent $500 swimsuit, can this really be a good thing for the sport at large? "If young people don't have access to these technologies, they will see elite athletes as different," says sociologist Jay Coakley, author of Sports in Society. "They'll be less likely to work hard at the developmental level and the sports will begin to languish."
Put another way, if money can buy greater success, then the talent pool shrinks to those able and willing to fork out for high-tech equipment that is expensive by definition and design. If there's a perception that you need to buy cutting-edge carbon-fibre hockey sticks and sub-700-gram skates made with silver texalium composite material to gain an edge on the ice, then a lot of talented athletes become too poor to play the game.
There's a good reason why soccer, basketball and track are such popular sports worldwide - they don't demand high entry fees and aren't at the mercy of the high-end equipment suppliers. "Running is one of the most pure sports you'll find," says marathoner Reid Coolsaet, who is representing Canada at this month's world championships in Berlin. "It's so accessible to everybody - the best distance runners in the world come from places like Kenya and Ethiopia."
Shoe companies may do their best to make a case for their record-breaking designs, and absurd bodysuits still find their way to Olympic finals, but on the track, it's still the athletes who win the race, not the clothing.
As a business model, the high-tech sports-equipment arms race seems to have a limiting disadvantage: "Equipment companies are cutting their own throats by limiting accessibility," says Prof. Simon.
In some high-end sports such as golf, tennis and cycling, where the target market consists of free-spending adults who might be more susceptible to the instant uplift high-tech equipment promises, this sales technique isn't such a problem.
"These days," says Greg Mathieu, CEO of the Canadian Cycling Association, "you can't really race a bike professionally that isn't available in the shop. Just make sure you've got $6,000."
The technological advantage in cycling is less about the equipment now than it is about an intensive scientific approach to technique - aerodynamic studies of the best position for a rider to hold on a long ride, or wind-resistance research that determines how riders should shape their ever-changing line on a team trial.
For all the advantages, both fair and unfair, that science and technology are able to supply, one disadvantage sometimes eludes sports' decision-makers. "At what point, asks Jay Coakley, "do ordinary spectators cease to identify with athletes as people with the same feelings, the same weaknesses, the same challenges as we have?"
It's a question that touches on the very nature of being a fan, of being the person for whom all these achievements are ultimately accomplished. Do we want Tiger Woods or Sidney Crosby or Lance Armstrong to be such supersized heroes, or is part of their appeal that they cut through all the technology and make direct contact with the rest of us?
"Take a lesson from Lance Armstrong," Coakley says. "We used to see him as a high-tech cyborg - technology interfered with our ability to connect with him. But the moment that we saw him suffer, it became easier to identify with him as a human being."
That's probably not a lesson that Michael Phelps will take to heart, not yet. In the pool, what you wear comes first.Report Typo/Error