Those bodysuits: Much ado about nothing?

At the beginning of every Olympics, there are two basic indicators that the Games finally are getting under way: The torch is lighted and the controversies reach full cry.

And so it is here in this glorious city of majestic enthusiasm: The torch with all its ancient symbolism will dazzle at the Opening Ceremony today and major discussion topics will begin getting an over-the-top hearing, thanks to the presence of some 17,000 media representatives covering about 11,000 athletes. Both numbers keep rising, daily.

The prime topics at Sydney 2000:

*Use of drugs by the athletes. This is always, always, always on the agenda. Every nation and every athlete is suspicious of every other nation and every other athlete. There are accusations and denials. Already some Chinese athletes have been sent packing for doping violations. A report was issued late last week suggesting that as many as 9 of 10 athletes in some sports are artificially assisted. In another time and place, the East Germans wrote the book on chemically enhanced performance. It's an old topic - important but tiresome and depressing.

*Much more fun is the growing furor over bodysuits for the swimmers.

As many always want to believe in pots of gold at the ends of rainbows and Paul Bunyan and Jack and the Beanstalk - but can't because of lack of evidence - so it is with swimmers and bodysuits. They want to believe in magic. They want to believe in technology.

Of course, improved technology - which at the least seems somewhat more laudable than improved drugs - is everywhere in sports. Golfers like Bobby Jones played with wooden clubs; today it's titanium. Shoes used to be just shoes; now they are high-tech marvels.

It does seem unfair. After all, to achieve something grand with inferior equipment is worthy of lavish adulation. That's why historical comparisons are shaky.

For example, in 1952 in Helsinki, Bob Richards set a then Olympic pole vault record of 14 ft., 11 in. In 1988 in Seoul, Ukranian Sergei Bubka soared 19 ft., 4 in. Who was the better pole vaulter? That's impossible to say, but it's easy to say who had the better pole.

So, do the revolutionary bodysuits - developed by marine biologists and made with texture that resembles a shark's skin - make the competitors go faster?

More than a year has been spent bickering about them, with concerns that almost every world record would fall solely because of the new pool fashion. An executive for Speedo, one of the companies that took the plunge into bodysuits, says its research shows the suits reduce drag by 3 percent, which he calls a "significant amount."

But when the effect of the suits was studied at the US Olympic swimming trials last month in Indianapolis, an Indiana University professor, Joel Stager, said the results proved that "it was almost as if they [the bodysuits] didn't exist."

So much ado about nothing? "Sure, you can say that," says Stager, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Indiana. "Besides," he asks, "who's to say they wouldn't have been faster without the fast suits?"

Stager says American Olympian Lenny Krayzelburg, who is the best backstroker in the world, raced in the preliminaries without the suit as if, Stager suggests, to say, "I don't need no stinkin' suit. I'm still better than you." Then he wore one in the finals and didn't swim as fast.

Australian superstar Ian Thorpe wore the new suit when he set a world record in his country's Olympic trials - and was unimpressed: "There's the perception that the suits make you go a lot faster. I don't really think so. I don't think it makes much difference at all."

Indeed, that's the conclusion of the International Swimming Federation, which says it doesn't care what swimmers wear.

Basically, Stager suggests, follow the money. Many competitors will wear the suits here because manufacturers will pay them to and will pay them a bunch more if they win. What's important to the companies are the windfall revenues if the suits become de rigueur down through colleges, high schools, and swimming clubs. Conventional Speedo suits, Stager says, cost about $35 for men and $60 for women; a new bodysuit costs $299.

If some high-profile Olympic swimmers - who will begin splashing their stuff tomorrow - triumph wearing bodysuits, Stager says, the new wearing apparel will fly out of stores and into pools everywhere.

After all, he suggests, "If the athletes think they're a magic bean, then maybe they work."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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