What Are You Wearing?

by Casey Barrett

Speedo restarts the suit wars…

Is this really happening again? Please tell me it’s not happening again. The rhetoric certainly sounds familiar. The new technology is “revolutionary”, unprecedented and performance-enhancing, world records will fall thanks to Speedo’s latest innovation. The winter before the next Games, it must be time to stir up swimmers’ suit insecurities… Because if you’re not wearing the latest and greatest from Speedo, you can’t possibly hope to compete for Olympic gold. (Right, Coach Schubert?)

Weren’t we supposed to be done with this? Did anyone learn anything from that dark saga of the super suits back in 2008 and 2009? Well, we learned that polyurethane is bad, and that full suit coverage across men’s torsos is unacceptable. We learned that artificial buoyancy amounts to cheating. We learned about things like compression and the nature of material that is far better than your own skin when trying to propel yourself through water at high speeds.

We also learned that suit makers really really want to be a part of the action. They want to be in the game, not just attached to it. They need to have a hand in those records. They want credit, damn your speed-reducing regulation!

The tone deaf nature of Speedo’s latest announcement was comical. Last week, they introduced their new “Fastskin 3” — now it’s a system not just a suit. Fast suits are so 2009… Now you need a brand new ultra futuristic cap and goggles too! (Who knew this site would be so presciently named…) Take a look at aquabots Lochte and Phelps sporting their latest armor at last week’s unveiling. Please try not to smirk…

Now, you can’t blame the athletes for their glowing endorsements or for the goofy ways they’re forced to model this stuff. Phelps said it makes him feel like a “torpedo” and that records would surely fall in London thanks to his sponsor’s latest assistance. Lochte added that he now “feels as one” with his suit. I’d say the same thing if they paid me to say it. And what they’re saying is probably true. I’m sure it works and I’m sure these guys are being genuine when they say it. But can we please have some self-awareness here, Speedo? Or at least some tact?

This is the company that led the way in dismantling the record books thanks to innovations that crossed every line of performance enhancement. Their LZR Racer was the first (but soon not the best) suit to make an utter mess of the sport. Less than two years after that LZR and its various spawn were banned, it might be appropriate for Speedo to acknowledge the market they warped and how the swimming community just might perceive that they’re now doing the exact same thing again. Just with a new set of rules – ones that they’re writing. Some free advice to Speedo’s Public Relations team: Mention it. Say, perhaps, “we realize the swimming community has entered a new era of competition and performance, one not dependent on apparel, but on the body itself.” Go on to state how respectful you are as a company of that important line, how you are there to assist not to enhance the performance of the swimmers wearing your gear.

This will be complete crap, of course. You won’t mean it, but that’s not important. At least pretend that you recognize how you might be perceived.

Instead, you trot out more scientists. Except this time, instead of citing NASA geniuses as your inspiration, you mention the innovators behind CGI special effects in film as your guides… You wheel out the head of your “Aqualab” in London, a guy named Tom Waller, who says that “we believe we’re the only manufacturer to have ever designed something to work in unison. Taken together this is the fastest stuff we’ve ever created.”

Yes, the same script you were using four years ago… Except if you can no longer tamper with the suit quite as much as you’d like, you go looking for new terrain. Let’s face it, in swimming, there’s not a lot to work with. You need to get creative in order to corrupt that essential purity of body moving through water… And so, you’re left with the cap and goggles. How to get rid of that annoying, less than streamlined, face and head of every swimmer? By coming up with THIS.

There are plenty of folks out there who might applaud all this, call it “progress.” Who might point to the long evolution of swimwear, back to the days of wearing wool, and shrug at just another improvement in a constantly evolving process. Or maybe you just love gear. Plenty of sports worship the stuff. Consider it an essential element of the game. But here’s the thing:

Up until around the turn of the century, the evolution of swimwear was about freeing the body, getting the gear out of the way. From wool to nylon to paper… Some of those men’s paper suits worn at the ’96 Olympics were borderline pornographic in their coverage. (Here’s looking at you, Tom Dolan!) They made Brazilian beach goers look demure. Then, the entire process was reversed. Suit makers realized that shaved skin was actually quite inferior to the fabrics they could come up with.

And now they’ve realized that shaving your head and wearing a pair of Swedish goggles isn’t nearly streamlined enough.

What will they think of next? How about getting out of the way?