In Olympian swimsuits, threads of history

The full-body LZR Racer is seen as a breakthrough in reducing drag. Suits have changed dramatically in recent decades.

Nati Harnik/AP
Record: Natalie Coughlin, in LZR Racer, swam 100-meter backstroke in 58.97 seconds.
Nigel Roddis/Reuters
Austria's Mirna Jukic prepares to swim in her LZR Speedo suit in the Women's 200m Breaststroke

All the talk is technology. NASA was consulted. Records are falling like so much ticker tape at a gold medalist’s victory parade. Then there’s the lawsuit – which is not to be confused with the swimsuit.

Just about everyone here at the United States Olympic swim trials has been jabbering about what the candidates for the Beijing Games are wearing. For women, it’s the full-body Speedo LZR Racer. For men, it can just be long-john-like tights. Swimmers are gushing about how it’s making them faster, more-efficient missiles through the chlorine.

Speedo has shamelessly boasted in breathless releases about the depth of research – tapping everyone from the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration to software firms – involved in creating the suit.

Michael Phelps, who kicked off the trials Sunday night with a world record in the 400-meter individual medley, wore the LZR bottom, but no top. “The suit really is amazing,” said the six-time 2004 gold medalist. Indeed, through Tuesday night, 44 world records in swimming have fallen since Speedo introduced the suit in February.

Mr. Phelps, who is under contract to Speedo, said after his thrilling 400-meter victory: “It does give you that extra tenth or hundredth [of a second] that you need to break a record.’’

The suit, seen as a major technological leap, is said to reduce drag. It has no seams; the three parts of the full-body suit are glued, not sewn, together. It is also constructed to compress the swimmer’s core muscles, rather like a girdle, creating a more sleek object through the water.

But this shouldn’t be solely a science discussion, says Bruce Wigo, CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. As TV viewers watch this week’s trials and next month’s Olympics, they should be thinking about the threads of social history as much as the synthetic fabrics.

“[Swim] suits are a reflection of each period’s social values,’’ says Mr. Wigo, adding that evolution of swimwear speaks volumes about the development of the sport and, particularly, women’s rights in and out of the pool. Wigo helped USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, put together an exhibit at “Aqua Zone,” the swim trade show that’s under way in the convention center wing of Qwest Center, where the trials are being staged.

The condensed version of swimwear history begins in ancient times when indigenous men around the world swam naked. Women, generally, weren’t permitted to swim, Wigo says.

Fast forward to the Roman Empire, and the public baths became iconic centers of their own technology and architecture. But the baths would become dens of sexual activity, Wigo says, and the growing Christian world “looked at the baths as one of the primary reasons Rome fell. Nudity, swimming, and bathing became regarded as sinful.... For a thousand years, the Western world lost the art of swimming. When it came back, it came back with sailors.”

Meanwhile, as a survival skill and not as sport, native men in Africa, Polynesia and the Americas swam, using, research shows, the standard crawl stroke that Australians would claim centuries later as their own.

Through about the 1850s, Wigo says, his research shows men swam in the nude. As the Victorian period in England unfolded, women created a bloomerlike dress for bicycling that was soon adapted for swimming. They wore bonnets and their feet were covered.

Two events in the early 20th century altered women’s involvement with swimming. In 1904, the General Slocum, carrying about 1,000 church people, mostly women and children, sank on a cruise from Manhattan to Long Island. Most of the women died as they could not swim.

Soon after, Australian feminist, actress, and swimmer Annette Kellerman designed a black wool swimming suit for women that resembles a modern women’s unitard. Her arms were bare. Soon, she threw off the dark stockings. “Annette Kellerman was the Madonna of her period,” says Wigo. “She pushed the envelope.”

By 1912, women swimmers began competing in the newly established modern Olympics. But no American women participated until 1920.

By the 1960s, Speedo began developing nylon suits that were acknowledged to aid Olympians’ speed. By the 1960w and ’70s, men’s brief swimsuits were in style. In 1972, American Mark Spitz wore a red, white, and blue brief made of nylon elastine. It was supposed to have made him faster, en route to seven gold medals.

“You wanted to show as much skin as possible,” Wigo says. But, he notes, “When we went to these little suits, we alienated one-third of the planet, with Muslims and other religious [people] saying we shouldn’t be showing that much skin.”

(Swimwearmakers have more recently created “Muslim appropriate” swimwear for women, with their heads, arms, and legs covered, but in material that allows for swimming.)

Which takes us to the 21st century, where science meets litigation at the pool. Speedo and USA Swimming are being sued by TYR Sport Inc., which claims that the governing body and head Olympic coach Mark Schubert have favored Speedo over other swimwear makers. But in Omaha for these swim trials, it was all about the “touching the wall first,” no matter how challenging it is to get the darn things on.

“The LZR takes about 20 minutes to put on,” said Natalie Coughlin, who won five medals at the Athens Olympics and is expected to win more in Beijing. “It’s just incredibly tight, especially around the legs. You inch it up millimeter by millimeter.”

So why deal with it? “They tell me it’s better,” she says. “So I wear it.”

Tuesday, wearing the LZR Racer, Coughlin broke the world 100-meter backstroke record.

[Editor's note: The original version misidentified Michael Phelps.]

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