Every four years, the world is reminded just how awesome swimming can be. The 2008 Beijing Olympics Games though, were something special.
Overall, 25 world swimming records were shattered, the most in the sport since 1976, when goggles were used for the first time. But there was a problem: According to Speedo, 98 percent of the records shattered were broken while wearing a specially designed swimsuit, Speedo's LZR Racer.
WHILE WE WAIT FOR THE 2021 TOKYO OLYMPICS, INVERSE IS LOOKING BACK ON PAST OLYMPIC MOMENTS AND CELEBRATING THE SCIENCE OF SPORTS.
The moment – In 2008, Michael Phelps brought home eight medals, breaking the record for the number of gold medals won by a single Olympian.
Of the 25 world swimming records set overall at the Beijing Games, 23 were set while wearing the LZR Racer, a polyurethane swimsuit that covered nearly the whole body. This LZR Racer-wearing group included Phelps.
Watch all eight of Phelps' gold medal performances here.
When the swimsuit debuted earlier that year at several Olympic trials events, Speedo's marketing executive at the time, Stu Isaac, made a prediction that ended up becoming more true than he could have ever anticipated: "There's going to be more fireworks," he told the Los Angeles Times.
Indeed there were. The effects were so powerful that they caused an existential crisis in the sport — the suit was that good. The coach of the Japanese national swimming team broke an existing sponsor agreement to allow his athletes to wear the suit: "if swimmers don’t wear the LZR Racer, they won’t be able to compete," he said.
By 2010, the fate of the LZR racer was sealed: FINA, the international governing body of swimming banned swimsuits that might aid speed, buoyancy and performance — including the LZR Racer. The wording of that by-law stands to this day and is clearly influenced by the science that made the LZR Racer so damn fast.
The science – The goal of any high-performance swimsuit is to reduce drag on the body. You want to achieve that in two ways, explains Steve Haake, a professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University.
- By reducing bluff-body drag, which you can imagine as the v-shaped wake left behind by a swimmer as they cruise through the water. The smaller that wake, the better.
- By reducing skin friction, the amount of water that's dragged along with you due to the roughness of the skin.
The LZR racer was lined with very thin, yet very stiff polyurethane plastic panels. Polyurethane is a plastic material that can "reject water" Haake tells Inverse.
"They reduced the skin friction even further with those polyurethane panels," he says. "And then that's when the whole world of swimming exploded."
Skin friction drag was reduced by 24 percent by the LZR Racer, NASA, a collaborator on the suit, reported. And, when a swimmer squeezed into one of those suits it also compressed their bodies ever so slightly, reducing that bluff drag too, Haake notes.
It seemed that nothing could beat the LZR Racer when it was on some of the fastest swimmers in the world. Then Speedo's competition stepped up.
In 2009 — after Speedo's year of Olympic domination — Arena debuted their Arena X-Glide, an impermeable full-bodysuit made entirely of polyurethane. This compressed the body even more. Wearing the Arena X-Glide, German swimmer Paul Biedermann beat Phelps at the 2009 World Championships. Phelps was not wearing a full bodysuit.
Phelps loses to Biedermann who was wearing the Arena X-Glide that would be officially banned in 2010.
FINA had already indicated an intent to ban such full-body suits for the 2010 season, but that moment solidified their fate, says Haake.
"That's when like the whole thing exploded and FEMA had to come in and change the rules and allow them anymore," Haake says.
Now, swimsuits must be "textile fabrics" that are woven, knitted, or braided. That wording exists to ensure that plastic panels are a thing of the past. Now, manufacturers have a clear line they can't cross in the name of additional speed.
Still, Haake says, the quest for speed defined by the LZR Racer lives on in other ways.
"You're limited in what you can do with the body, because of the rules on the swimsuit, so it kind of goes into capes and goggles," Haake says. Today, manufacturers are playing with streamlined caps and goggles that maximize speed. They're also focusing on wearables that allow athletes to train smarter:
"You've got these wearable devices which really aid in training," he explains.
And if we've learned anything, it's ultimately not the swimsuit that makes the swimmer. As of 2019, 16 world records have fallen — without the help of plastic panels.