Saturday, December 20, 2008

Does the Swimsuit Make the Man?

Michael Phelps has the record for most gold medals in a single Olympic games, was voted Sportsman of the Year in 2008 by Sports Illustrated, and holds world records for the 200m freestyle, 200m butterfly, 200m medley, 400m medley, 4x100m freestyle relay, 4x200m freestyle relay, and the 4x100m medley relay (Wikipedia, 2008). Michael Phelps truly is great at swimming; no one can deny it. However, is it really viable to say that his technique is the sole reason for his continued success in breaking records?


If we look at men’s and women’s 200m butterfly world records since 1959, we notice that the men’s times have dropped 17.9% whereas the women’s times have dropped 20.9% (see figure). There has not been a particular standout female swimmer in the past 50 years who everyone claims has changed women’s swimming, so then why is Michael Phelps considered to be the cause of the incredible decrease in men’s race times seen recently? American swimmer Mark Spitz improved upon the record by 5 seconds and broke it seven times from 1967-1972; from 2001-2008, when Michael Phelps broke the record seven times, it decreased by a mere 2.55 seconds, only half of the decrease achieved by Mark Spitz. Limits exist in all things, so does this mean that we are approaching the limit for the fastest possible time in the 200m butterfly? Have we already surpassed the actual physical limit and now it is only changing because of technology? I don’t know, but let’s take a look at the technology of the swimsuit Phelps used in the Beijing Olympics, Speedo’s LZR Racer Swimsuit, to see how the swimsuit helped him and the other swimmers who raced with it.



This video from youtube.com explains how the LZR swimsuit works to improve efficiency of movement through water, which is what the swimmers are looking for. In order to get better times, they need to increase their efficiency, be it through better technique or a better suit. This Speedo suit decreases drag by 24% and makes the body more streamline, increasing the efficiency of the swimmer (Brain, 2008). All athletes are looking to improve their times and technology facilitates this. The big controversy is whether or not the LZR swimsuit is the same as doping in other sports. On one hand, the swimsuit increases efficiency; on the other hand, the swimmer still needs to perfect his or her technique in order to perform at the elite level. It’s up to you to decide.

References:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvMdqvO3R9g
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_phelps
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_record_progression_200_metres_butterfly
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