RIO DE JANEIRO — There’s one question swimmers won’t hear this month around the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro: What are you wearing?
Olympic coaches and swimmers would prefer it remain that way, never wanting to go back to the swimsuit wars that culminated with a ludicrous display of speed at the 2009 world championships.
Yet, the big-money swimsuit companies — so crucial to the sport’s financial viability — are always pressing to show off their high-tech chops, which are severely crimped by rules that restrict the size and fabrics for competition swimsuits.
Some are wondering just how long the status quo will remain in place after the Rio Games end on Aug. 21.
“I do believe there will be something that’s coming,” American swimmer Elizabeth Beisel said. “Whether it’s in the next five years, 10 years, who knows? But it’ll get back to where it was, for sure.”
That prospect is anathema to those who remember what happened seven years ago in Rome, when a decade of radical changes in swimsuit design led to the introduction of rubberized bodysuits.
Forty-three world records were set at a meet that was more farce than competition, leading governing body FINA to hastily impose new swimsuit rules that mandated only textile fabrics, banned zippers and restricted the amount of coverage from the waist to the top of the knees for men — so-called “jammers” — and to the upper body and upper legs for women.
While the swimsuit companies still tout the quality of their suits and push the limits as far as they can within the rules, it’s clear they would like a little more leeway.
“It definitely unleashes a little more creativity and innovation if the rules are relaxed a bit,” said Todd Mitchell, who helped develop Michael Phelps’ signature swimsuit line for Aqua Sphere.
Kate Wilton, the senior director of merchandising and design at Speedo, said the current rules forced the swimsuit giant to change its design approach.
“A lot more energy now goes into the actual design of the suit and its print,” she said. “The suits have become more colorful.”
But, Wilton added, “obviously, we love it when people can push innovation a little bit more.”
Specifically, she mentioned the idea of allowing the men’s suits to cover more of their bodies.
“If that happens, we’ll be ready,” she said.
Speedo was on the cutting edge of the swimsuit wars with its revolutionary LZR Racer, which was developed with help from NASA’s wind tunnel testing facilities and became the go-to attire heading into the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
With polyurethane incorporated into the fabric and strategically placed panels that compressed the body in key spots, the suit helped a swimmer stay higher in the water and minimize resistance — essentially mimicking the effect of a dolphin gliding through the ocean.
Phelps was wearing the LZR when he won a record eight gold medals in China, famously capturing a $1 million bonus from Speedo. But by the following summer, the suit was basically rendered obsolete by the fully rubberized models that led the assault on the record books in Rome.
“Pretty much anybody could swim fast in those suits,” Beisel said. “Now, you definitely need to be a hard worker and have some yardage and stuff under your belt. You can’t just rely on the suits to make you fast anymore.”
USA Swimming wants to keep it that way, but also knows that swimsuit companies have huge influence within the sport.
“It’s not that we are opposed to science, but we want the performance on the athletes to be gauged on their hard work, on what they’re able to accomplish without technological aids, specifically swimsuits,” said Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming. “The swimming suit manufacturers are always pushing the envelope, and that’s understandable, and then they become sponsors of governing bodies. This is what happens in Washington D.C., right, with our government?”
Cornel Marculescu, who runs FINA, insisted there is nothing on the table to change the current suit rules.
“We don’t have any big issue in this,” he said.
There is still room for innovation.
Speedo, for instance, unveiled the Fastskin LZR Racer X for the Rio Olympics, touting a “one-way stretch technology” that allows more flexibility, a thinner fabric around the core of the women’s suit to provide better feel of the water, and an “X” strip across the backside — hence the suit’s name — to give a bit more power and snap off the turns.
Then there’s the new kid on the block, Aqua Sphere, which developed a suit for Phelps’ signature MP line that uses two different fabrics to create a material known as “Exo-Core,” hoping to provide both the compression and the flexibility desired by the most decorated athlete in Olympic history.
“That’s one advantage of being newer in the space,” Mitchell said. “Michael wants a suit that’s fast, compressive and hydrodynamic. He wants it to be flexible. When you have a wide-open canvas, it gives you room to innovate.”
While everyone agrees that top-of-line racing suits help swimmers go faster than something just off a store shelf, there’s also a recognition that much of the edge is psychological.
“Some of it is the placebo effect, let’s be honest,” said Bruce Gemmell, who coaches American star Katie Ledecky.
“I think they’re all about the same,” he said of the suits, before jokingly adding, “I’m never going to get a suit contract!”
Actually, that’s just the way the swimmers want it.
“I know the suit rules are there to make it equal for everyone,” said Missy Franklin, who won four gold medals at the 2012 London Games. “That’s what is most important.”