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Tech by VICE

Does the Suit Make the Swimmer? A History of Olympic Swimwear

Casual Olympics watchers will have noticed: The male swimmers are topless again! You can see the ladies’ knees once more! And…they look rather more like Grey aliens than last time. The changes were three years in the making. After a season of off...

by JONATHAN LIU
Aug 2 2012, 1:30pm

The New Look: Stripped to the waist, compressed to the gills, head like an insect.

Casual Olympics watchers will have noticed: The male swimmers are topless again! You can see the ladies’ knees once more! And…they look rather more like grey aliens than last time.

The changes were three years in the making. After a season of off-the-wall record-breaking, FINA, swimming’s governing body, banned the full-length polyurethane bodysuits made iconic in Beijing. Michael Phelps threatened to quit racing, lest ever-accelerating advances in hydrodynamic plastics turn lesser swimmers into serious competition. Speedo, Phelps’s key sponsor and makers of the LZR Racer that he and fellow Olympians wore to 94% of the medals in 2008, decried the return to skin-bearing textile suits as a Luddite decree that would ruin the sport. Only two individual records were broken in 2010, the year the ban took effect.

Turns out this all may have been less a drama of man vs. (wearable) machine than a particularly canny case study in planned obsolescence. Speedo and Phelps patched up the rift and renewed their sponsorship deal. And, just in time for London, the former went back to the labs to create the Fastskin 3, which follows the letter of FINA’s law and the spirit of, say, Lockheed’s skunkworks. If the LZR Racer’s shape was modeled in the manner of old-school torpedoes and fighter jets, Fastskin 3 is, like the F-35, a weapons system, with the wild goggles and headgear to match. (Check out Scientific American’s July 27 feature.)

But swimwear hasn’t always been this high tech. Consider a century of swimsuit tech:

Athens 1896: Bodysuits, for modesty’s sake.

Stockholm 1912: Brief flirtation with loincloth-chic.

Amsterdam 1928: Back to full coverage.

London 1948: Skimpy, but not yet shiny.

Rome 1960: Shiny, plus all body hair banished.

Munich 1972: Brief appearance of the mustache as hydrofoil breathing assistant.

Sydney 2000: After three decades of the regulation Speedo, scuba wear appears.

Beijing 2008: The lab-perfected LRZ Racer, banned in 2009.

With civilians once again tuned in, the post-2009 records drought appears over. After six individual men’s events in London, one world and two Olympic records have already been broken. On the women’s side, three Olympics and two worlds have fallen. It’s too soon to tell if the new round of suits have had any positive effects, but until FINA hands down another ban, expect the suit skunkworks to keep churning.

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