Tuesday, August 12, 2008

As Swimming Records Fall, Technology Muddies the Water in The New York Times

As Swimming Records Fall, Technology Muddies the Water

Every Olympics, there are a number of World Records broken, sometimes by small margins, some by large. This year the main culprit seems to be swimming, with World Records being dropped by large margins. The Italian National team coach in particular is complaining that the new swimsuits developed by Speedo give an unfair advantage, especially to his team which uses a competing swimware company. Some have compared the conversation of swimsuits to the conversation about doping, describing them as equivalent.

But these sudden gains in performance have occurred before. The 4:00 minute mile was at one time considered unbreakable, even as times creeped slowly down towards the 4:01. But once it was broken, it was broken dozens of time in the course of a couple years. Cycling has also seen technological advances, such as the aero bars that are used to provide lower air resistance. So what is the difference? It is not a secret technology, Speedo Razor is used by many teams, in fact Razor suits are available off the shelf (which is why Speedo created them, for sale to the public). And there is no secret to the fact that it is being used, or anything preventing any athlete from using it (other then the fact that the Italians are using a commercial sponsor who is paying for the privilege). And finally, the suit does not move the person, the athlete still does all the work. Is it much different from when swimmers learned to shave their legs? In that way, it is qualitatively different then doping, where the athlete adds to their bodies instead of the work of practice and training. Just as training at altitude is qualititively different then doping, even if they both have the effect of more blood cells. Because training at altitude still requires the body to do the work of building those cells on its own, in response to training.

Where are the limits? First there is safety. Here lies the prohibitions to steroids, most drugs, the age limits barring the very young. Here is why aerobars are prohibited from the peloton (as opposed to triathalons or time trials), why racing bikes have minimum weights. Next, the goal is that athletics is intended to be physical competition in defined events. The general mechanics of running are the same on the roads of Pittsburgh, Athens, Colorado Springs or Beijing, and the club runner or cyclist can appreciate the effort and training involved at the highest levels. The short-cuts of drugs instead of training short circuits that, and removes the athletic performance from the idea of athletes who come from the masses of humanity.

So, why are there so many records being broken? Part of it is the Olympics are the premier event for swimmers, and when you have 10-15 years in a career (as western swimmers now do, as long as they stay off drugs) you can train to peak on the Olympic year. Similarly, companies like Speedo can focus their R&D on the timing of the Olympics, helping sponsored swimmers at their biggest events. And in this Olympics, something special was done. The Chinese actually paid attention to the design of the pool. And so you have buffer lanes, pool sides and lane dividers designed to absorb wake. All so that the Beijing Olympics would be something special. All that was needed was for the athletes to do their part.
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