If every record is broken at the world championships by swimmers wearing suits that will soon be illegal, what should we make of all those astonishing numbers?
Should they be accompanied by an asterisk, as one prominent coach suggested? Or should they just be viewed as the products of a different era, a target that will seem out of reach at first but surely will fall some day.
No matter what, these are a world championships like no other.
“A lot of us are joking that this might be the fastest we ever go,” US backstroker Aaron Peirsol said. “We might as well enjoy this year.”
Swimming’s governing body, FINA, finally stepped up on Friday to pass a rule banning the sort of high-tech bodysuits that have been credited — or blamed, depending on your perspective — for turning the record book into something that had to be reprinted on an almost weekly basis.
More than 100 world marks fell last year. Nearly 30 have already gone down this year. Every record is considered highly vulnerable at this meet, which is the biggest outside of the Olympics and begins on Sunday.
“This will be a world championships where numerous, numerous world records are broken,” predicted Michael Scott, Britain’s performance director.
Not everyone agrees — Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman said “it’s never as many as people think” — but whatever marks are standing after eight days in Rome could provide daunting targets beginning next year.
FINA took the drastic step of banning bodysuits altogether for the men, limiting them to so-called “jammers” that only go from the waist to the top of the knees. Women will be able to wear suits that must stop at the shoulders and the top of the knees.
It’s not quite a throwback to a different era — remember those teeny-weeny briefs the men once wore? — but it’s certainly a stunning change for a sport that took its first drastic turn at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when Ian Thorpe showed up wearing a daunting black suit that covered everything but his head, feet and hands.
While most swimmers stayed away from that much coverage, it wasn’t long before the swimsuit manufacturers were in a high-stakes races to see who could come up with a model that provided the best buoyancy, allowing the athletes to glide along the top of the water where they faced less resistance.
The top suits also provided more support around the middle of the body, increasing endurance and allowing some swimmers to get away with less training.
Speedo developed the LZR Racer with help from NASA and blew everyone else away. But shortly after the Olympics, other companies — led by the obscure Italian firm Jaked — came up with a polyurethane model that made the LZR look slow.
Now, apparently, it’s all coming to an end. But not until after these world championships.
“Some of these records might not be broken for a long, long time,” Peirsol said.
The prospect of top swimmers suddenly going 2 or 3 seconds slower than their previous times led Mark Schubert, head coach of the US, to suggest an asterisk be placed on any record from the last 18 months of the bodysuit era, when the manufacturers were coming up with everything short of a motor on the suits.
“That was just an idea, perhaps to have two lists — one list with the new suits, then one list with the old suits,” Schubert said.
In a strange twist, Schubert was one of the LZR’s leading cheerleaders when it was unveiled in February last year, urging all Americans to wear it, no matter their contractual obligations, if they wanted to have a chance to win gold in Beijing. When the LZR was surpassed by other suits, he changed his position and urged FINA to rein things in.