Innovation & Swimming – an Ethical Dilemma

Records are made to be broken.   There are reasons why that is the case – extra drive to better the previous record; improved training and techniques; data analytics; availability of means to recuperate quickly from injuries; and changes in rules [changes in rules can also make it difficult].

Another aspect is the application of newer technologies in sports gears for performance enhancement.  This is where ethical questions are being raised and the spirit of the sport is being debated.  Shouldn’t the winner be determined based only on skills, physical and mental ability, preparation, conditioning and dedication?

If the benefits of improved gears are equitable, there is not much debate, e.g., the improvements made to the football or baseball balls.  But what about sports shoes, golf clubs, and tennis racquets?

Swimming has been no exception to this ethical debate.  Technological advancement has arguably made more splashes in swimming than any other sport.  Look at the swimming records broken at disproportionate rates in the recent past that intensified at the 2009 World Championship Games held in Rome.  43 new records!  One common theme among most of the record setting swimmers was polyurethane bodysuits, including Paul Bidermann from German who defeated Michael Phelps in 200 meters freestyle and broke his record.  And some media outlets did not hesitate to call 2009 Rome Games as ‘Plastic Games’.  Protests and numerous reviews ultimately led to the bodysuit ban. LZR Racer from Speedo should ring a bell.

Should the records set at the 2009 Rome Games be erased from the record books?

A quick history – it all started with woolen material.  Cotton came next, followed by other textile materials and combinations with synthetic materials.  Swim goggles were conceived to protect the eyes from water splash and chlorine.  Along came swim caps to provide better hydrodynamics.  Goggles and caps saw improvements in term of material and design, but these accessories were not viewed as performance enhancers and their prices were reasonable.  Hence, there wasn’t any controversy.

What’s the deal with expensive polyurethane bodysuit?  (i) it reduces drag drastically by being seamless and covering the torso; (ii) its thin foam like structure with trapped gas makes the swimmer buoyant, even a small lift above the water reduce the drag drastically; (iii) it compresses and holds the body in hydrodynamic shape and maintains a smooth texture even when the body turns and twists; (iv) its compression helps oxygen flow.  Even 1/100th of a second counts!

As an advocate of science and technology, I encourage innovation.  But, I also believe in leveling the playing field.  Most of the sports are popularized by the corporate sponsorship, and they drive lot of research and innovation.

Instead of banning these products, should we not look into making them affordable?  Promote innovation and level the playing field, at the same time.

Why are we obsessed with records?  Is it something to reconsider?

Well, I cannot wait for the 2016 Olympics to see what Speedo, TYR, Adidas, Nike and the likes would showcase and how many records will be broken in the pools of Brazil.  Please stay tuned!

– Meghna Sil


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