The lighting of the flame; but politics, and Speedo's "Supersuit" are making waves instead
Olympia was today the site of one sport's most fascinating and ancient traditions, the lighting of the Olympic flame. Dating back to the Ancient Olympics, where a flame was kept burning during the course of the Games, the current tradition of the lighting of the Olympic flame was re-introduced for the 1928 Games of Amsterdam.
The actual process of lighting the torch is remarkable - the sun's rays are concentrated by a parabolic mirror (right), during a ceremony performed by eleven women representing priestesses. This followed by an elaborate ceremony that ultimately lights the official Olympic torch. A short (4 minutes) highlight video of some moments from the ceremony is shown below, for those wishing to view it (I apologize for the music in the background - not my choice! You might want to go with your imagination and watch with the sound off...!).
Following the lighting of the torch, the journey begins, with a torch relay that crosses, in this case, 20 different countries before arriving in Beijing at the climax of the Olympic Opening Ceremony later this year. The first torch bearer this year was Alexandros Nikolaidis, Greece's Taekwondo silver medallist from the Athens Games four years ago. He begins a relay consisting of thousands of carriers, ultimately ending in a yet-unknown final carrier who will light the Olympic flame in Beijing's Olympic stadium on August 8.
Controversy from start to finish - will the Olympics be remembered for controversy?
The Beijing Olympic torch relay may well turn out to be the most controversial one in history. Ironically, the concept of the torch relay has political origins, having begun in 1936 when the Berlin Games Organizing Committee conceived the idea as a means of glorifying the Third Reich. For China, however, the opposite may be true, with protests and potentially violent demonstrations against China's controversial human rights record set to shadow the torch on its 5 month long journey.
Those demonstrations began today, even before the flame had been lit, as the ceremony was disrupted by protestors who managed to unfurl a banner protesting the current situation in Tibet. This is happening amidst growing concern within the journalistic world that freedom of press is going to be non-existent in China - the latest story suggests that China will ban outside broadcasts from Tiananmen Square during the Games, out of fear that the visuals beamed across the world will highlight China's alleged human rights violations.
However, these stories are inevitable (which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective), and the news media will bring you all you need to know, as well as things you didn't, in the buildup to Beijing. And besides, this is the Science of Sport, not the politics, so we'll turn instead to a Beijing-related story of another kind - Speedo's Super Swimsuit and the "waves" it is causing!
Making waves - Speedo's Supersuit
In recent weeks, we've focused on the possible impact of Beijing's pollution on endurance performance. That debate has a long way to run, and I'm sure that as we get closer to August, it will feature again. But for today, it's performances in the swimming pool that dominate and in particular, the impact of a new swimsuit by Speedo on performance. I was sent this article by a colleague in the USA this morning, and I must confess I had missed this fascinating story of how a new swimsuit threatens to move the sport forward by seconds in the next few months.
Speedo's LZR racer swimsuit, developed earlier this year, is the common denominator in all NINE world record performances in the pool so far this year! Most recently, Alain Bernard, a French freestyle swimmer (shown right), broke both the 50m and 100m freestyle world records during the European Championships.
This flurry of world records has driven a lively debate, which even seems to be polarizing former swimmers, administrators and coaches of the elite athletes who stand to benefit through the use of the swimsuit. For example, Mark Schubert, who is the head coach of the US swimming team, has predicted that this kind of technological advancement will one day render world records "irrelevant". The French swimming technical director has called for an ethical debate on the swimsuits, despite the fact that one of his men, Bernard, is a big "winner" as a result of the suit.
The Australian head coach, Alan Thompson, sits in the opposite corner, saying that he has no issue with the suits. He is supported by a number of former swimmers, who acknowledge that the suit is definitely a major contributing factor to performance, while at the same time suggesting that it's merely the price of progress and that we should not resist the inevitable change. For every person who supports innovation in sport, you will find another who warns against the potentially rampant effects of technology on performance.
What is the deal with the suit? How does it work?
Hydrodynamic and swimsuits are not exactly my speciality, and so to get a bit more insight on this one, I've emailed a colleague who is an expert in the field. However, from what I've been able to piece together from websites and news articles (amidst the usual marketing hype) is that the suit (shown on Michael Phelps to the left) has three innovations:
- A tighter, corset-like midsection that is reported to reduce fatigue at the end of races.
- A new material that is water repellant and reduces drag by 5% compared to older, slower swmsuits
- They are seamless, consisting of special panels of the repellant material that further reduces drag
I can't vouch for any of these claims, and I'll wait on the feedback from an expert before commenting. One sure way to test the first claim is to look at how races are paced, however. Pacing strategies, as I'll describe in our upcoming series on Fatigue and performance (starting next week), are of crucial physiological performance, and if the suit works, then you'll find that world records will be set with SLOWER starts and FASTER finishes. As for the other two innovations, I won't argue with a team of scientists from NASA, who reportedly developed the suit.
The ethical debate - fair or unfair? Your views welcome...
But now for the more intersting question: Should this be allowed? The issue of technology in sport has come up before, most notably with the debate around Oscar Pistorius, though that is a little different, being an advantage that others cannot copy. In this instance, access to the new equipment and technology is a little easier, provided you can afford to pay $700 (or $325, or R5200) for the suit, you too can benefit from it (research and development from NASA clearly does not come cheap!) However, it's still within reach of most competitive swimming nations, particularly if it's the small price to pay for Olympic success.
In that Pistorius debate, some have even called for all athletes to run barefoot to eliminate any role for technology being the difference between gold and silver. I'd hate to think what that means for swimming...the barefoot equivalent would be...
Seriously though, the debate is a very tricky one, because as the Australian head coach points out, "We can't still be swimming in wool suits". No, we can't. Yet the situation we now find ourselves in poses some challenging questions, hence the call from the French technical director for an ethical debate.
I'll stop short of professing anything dogmatic here, but I will say that I personally think it something of a shame that a world record, the fastest performance ever by a human being, can be achieved without training harder or smarter. In other words, there are swimmers in 2008 with exactly the same level of performance ability as they had in 2007, yet they will be seconds faster in some cases. One Australian swimmer claims a six-second improvement in performance in a 400m medley. How much of that is training and hard work? How much is the suit? Three seconds each, perhaps? Six and none? Who knows, and that's difficult to get around. In a sport where 1 second is the difference between first and eighth, the impact of technology on the outcome can't be ignored.
Of course, progress is natural, and some may be thinking this is a futile argument. Perhaps it is. We could very well start debating whether athletes from the 1950's were better than those from the 2000's. The best one could do with that debate is a "peaceful disagreement". But when the technology makes such an obvious difference, in so short a time, then I do believe it's a relevant one. In 2007, pre-Speedo's LZR Racer and NASA testing, would Alain Bernard be a world record breaker? Perhaps. And perhaps in Beijing, he'll prove it by beating other swimmers in the same equipment.
And therein lies the crux - provided the same equipment is made available to all swimmers, the argument never moves beyond world records. Because then, ultimately, it's still man on man, woman vs. woman. And the best swimmer wins. But if, as is possible according to reports, some have access and others do not, then the level playing field that is required no longer exists, and that is a problem. The same argument and head-crunching debate exists for just about any sport - cycling, yachting, motorsport - may the best equipment win. The alternative, the Ancient Olympics where competitors took part sans clothing, is the other extreme, and probably not a viable one!
The other problem is whether or not FINA, swimming's governing body, can regulate equipment. Again, I won't profess to know enough to even answer this question. Certainly, in cycling, it's possible, though complicated, to regulate equipment (weights, dimensions, ratios, shape etc.). Similarly, it's easy enough for athletics to regulate javelins (mass, centre of mass, etc.), but whether this can be done for swimsuits, I don't know. As one commentor has noted below, authorities meet regularly to discuss new equipment, as they will in this instance, at the World Short Course championships in Manchester. At that meeting, FINA will meet with Speedo, though at this stage, it's difficult to know if anything can be changed. The suit is legal, and to suddenly scrap performances would cause some controversy.
"Techno-doping" - an issue for WADA?
Earlier this evening, I was reminded by Jim Ferstle, a reader of the site and journalist who often sends interesting articles this way (including the Speedo debate), that WADA, who everyone knows as anti-doping watchdog, tried a few years ago to ban altitude tents, on the grounds that they provided an unnatural advantage similar to doping. Fortunately, that effort fizzled, but it does seem that this is one where they may well have more of a role to play. Is this an example of "techno-doping", with devices having no purpose other than to enhance performance? Should they be banned? Does technology unbalance the playing field? Do athletes gain unfair advantages from technology? At what point does innovation become "unnatural" and discriminatory?
All questions for which I don't have a conclusive answer. Your thoughts are welcome on the topic, please let us know!