In 1992, Speedo unveiled the S2000 swimsuit just in time for the Barcelona Olympics. The suit, which Speedo claims was the suit of choice for more than half of the swimmers who won medals [warning: PDF] that year, offered some important advantages over lycra suits and the “paper swimsuits” that had become popular among elite swimmers in the early 90s. Like paper suits, the S2000 was thinner and absorbed less water than traditional lycra suits and therefore created less “drag.” At $80, the suit was considered pricey but worth it for Olympians and other serious swimmers. Four years later, Speedo’s Aquablade hit the market around the time of the Atlanta Olympics. Like its predecessor, the Aquablade was made of thin, water-resistant fabric. The Aquablade, however, also had stripes that reduced surface drag by another 8 percent. More than 3 out of four swimming medals were awarded to athletes wearing Aquablades.
Around that time, my sister–an elite swimmer–handed her S2000 down to me. If you’re not sure what swimmers mean when they talk about swimsuit “drag,” think about the last time you were pushed into a pool with your clothes on or maybe a time when you went swimming wearing a long-sleeved surfer’s rash guard. Then think about swimming in a bathing suit. They’re worlds apart. Similarly, when you go from racing in a lycra suit to racing in an S2000, you feel like you’re slicing through the water. Hence the name Aquablade, I imagine.
The Aquablade was pricier–probably $100 or so at the time–and people began to ask questions: Is it fair that records are biting the dust left and right just because of better swimsuit technology? What about athletes who can’t afford these swimsuits and don’t have sponsors to provide them? Should we ban the suits at the Olympics? At the college level? At the middle or high school level? These questions became even more important when Speedo introduced the FASTSKIN in 2000, which cost up to $400 depending on the model you chose. At the Sydney games, fifteen world records were broken: thirteen by swimmers wearing the new, full-body suit. As the name suggests, the FASTSKIN creates even less drag than human skin and provides compression to support muscle performance and post-race recovery.
In a sport in which hundredths of a second often make the difference between qualifying and not qualifying for the finals, winning and coming in second (or third or last), should there be rules about which suits may be worn at various levels of competition? Why or why not?
My seventh grade science project was called Faster Swimming Through Technology. Several people commented that the title sounded futuristic. Now it sounds pretty obvious. Of course technology makes us faster–right? But there’s an interesting caveat for swimwear technology: Swimmers don’t train in S200s or Aquablades or FASTSKIN suits. They train without that technology, often wearing two lycra suits and tights to create drag and make their workouts more challenging. But most technologies–3G and 4G smartphones, broadband internet, and 2.2-lb laptops with 4 gigs of RAM–are necessary for our training (studying, working, etc.), and not just for occasional performances (tests, presentations, etc.). While you could theoretically level the playing field in Olympic swimming by giving every participant a FASTSKIN suit, you can’t help a student who can’t afford access to broadband by giving him access the day of an exam. This disparity is perhaps even more pronounced for persons with disabilities. Take dyslexia, for instance. If a student doesn’t have access to assistive technology such as a computer with text-to-speech, it doesn’t matter much whether you give him access to that technology the day of an exam. The extent to which technology has become a part of everything we do has made it more important than ever that we ask questions about fairness whenever we talk about tech policy.
In closing, I offer some food for thought: Do your ideas about whether we should have national or international rules about expensive swimsuit technology line up with your ideas about whether we should have national or international rules about access to broadband? Why or why not? There probably aren’t any easy answers, and there certainly aren’t any easy policy solutions. But if you have any advice for my next science project–Faster Lawmaking Through Technology–please let me know.