Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Beijing Olympic Torch lit

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!



cassio598 said...

You mentioned that "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," but I think that ignores a certain unique characteristic of swimming as an endurance sport.

Unlike running or cycling, swimming is a largely technical sport because moving through water efficiently is both difficult and unnatural for the human body. Even the elite spend much of their time refining technique because it's so influential. Alexander Popov and Matt Biondi reigned for as long as they did because they were so efficient in the water, not becuase their arms could pull harder than anyone else's. Additionally, Jack Daniels has written that the VO2 max of an elite swimmer he tested was only 60ml/kg/min! I'm just a wimpy punter and mine's higher than that.

Anyway, the point of all this is that the search for a more efficient way to move through water is fundamental to the sport of swimming. I doubt we'll see any more improvements in technique, but I think we'll continue to see improvements in swimwear and pool design, though the rate of improvement will ultimately slow or stop as well. The first high-tech suits only appeared two Olympics ago, after all.

bitz said...

If one country has the money to build the latest high tech training facility, and fund their athletes fully, and pay for the best coaching, then their athletes will do better, and this is fine by the rules. So you complain about a $700 bathing suit?

When new equipment gets introduced, then it takes a moment for regulators to decide whether or not to allow it. Swimming (I think) already has some rules, or we'd see swimmers with wetsuits, paddles and fins swimming in salt water. So they'll just need to decide how to change the rules. Do they allow synthetic materials, tight cuts, compression, or anything else? The main thing they face is that records have been set with this new technology, so is it fair to disallow it for future races?

If it is the cost of the suit, I think there is no argument to be had. If there is something else barring a swimmer from getting one of these suits (not shipping to china? not shipping from china?)
then that is another argument all together.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Cassio

Thanks for the comments, good point. I agree that technique and efficiency are critical. I don't dispute that at all, though I would bracket it in with "training" in my original description. in other words, I haven't necessarily said that a swimmer must go away and spend hours getting stronger or improving endurance. That training could just as easily improve technique and efficiency. I certainly haven't ignored the efficiency aspect.

Therefore the same argument applies - I don't know that it's ideal for the sport to have a situation where a swimmer with the same performance ability (and note that this ability includes efficiency through the water) can return in a different costume and suddenly improve by seconds as a result of a group of NASA scientists. In fact, this argument, and your pointing out the crucial aspect of technique could just as easily become an argument against the swimsuit.

So again, if a Speedo swimmer wins the Olympic gold in Beijing, beating someone sponsored by Arena (for example) by 0.05 seconds in a 200m freestyle race, are we seeing equipment in action or has the best swimmer won? One might say that every swimmer has choice and they could also swim in the suit they want, but that's not really the case, with sponsorships and money in the sport.

Then again, when a cyclist wins gold, are we ever sure they achieved it free of the technology of their bike? Answer is no, so we're going around in circles a little! I'm just playing devil's advocate on the issue, and I'm interested to see how it plays out - what I didn't say in the post (and have now added) is that FINA are going to be meeting to discuss the suit at the upcoming World Short Course champs, so we'll see if anything comes out of that.

Thanks for the comment!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Bitz

Thanks for the comments. I think you've missed the point a little bit - the price of $700 is hardly the crux of the argument (in fact, I only gave it to show that the costume IS accessible). Rather, the issue is the principle of access and technology improving performance. The argument is certainly not based around the cost of the suit, I'm not sure why that has stuck particularly.

Rather, the argument is whether the sudden introduction of technology, sufficient to improve performances enough to win titles or break records is good for the sport. This is the debate the coaches and swimming experts are having right now.

And I think in addition to price (I only brought it up because it contrasts with the situation of Oscar Pistorius, where the Cheetah blades are well out of reach for obvious reasons. So in fact, $700 makes it more accessible, not less), there are a few major issues.

In SA, for example, our swimmers are sponsorsed by Arena. Come Beijing, are those swimmers going to be starting with a 0.5s disadvantage, unable to get into the faster costume because of sponsorship issues? Have all swimmers got equal access? Forget price, the principle matters far more...

But then to take your comment, it's very interesting to look at the access to equipment and finances as a determinant of performance. Will poorer countries ever succeed given the cost of competing? I don't know, that's a great debate all by itself. But this particular issue is about how rapidly and how easily equipment can alter performance, and whether it gives any athlete's an unfair advantage. I have no doubt that over time, there will be two camps - one that has the suit, and says "get with the times", and the other that doesn't have the suit (for whatever reason), who say it is unfair.

FINA meets soon to discuss it, and it will be interesting to see what they decide.

Ian said...

I don't have much to add pertaining to the debate other than to say that it's an interesting dilemma.

Has anyone actually seen the swimsuit? I saw pictures from the original unveiling and maybe it was just due to the bright flashes from the cameras but the suit Michael Phelps was modeling was... uh... very revealing.

Meg & Dave said...

It is a slippery slope, but I think equipment is ok as long as it is passive.

The part I have a bit of an issue with is the compression around the mid section to inhibit fatigue. I don't know the science behind these things, but at what point do you draw the line? Oscars legs are "passive" energy storage devices not unlike the compression garments many athletes wear... atleast in that they have a spring constant with very low damping losses so energy you put in comes back almost entirely.

At what point does elastic become an energy storage device that enhances performance, rather than a garment used to inhibit fatigue?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a truly great website!

I've enjoyed reading your posts on how technology is beginning to intersect the world of sport, particularly in athletics and swimming. Of course this isn't entirely new. I'm from the era of Jim Ryun and have always wondered what advantages modern tracks confer over the old cinder tracks. Would a Mondo track and pacemakers have made him the first sub 3:50 miler?Have good scientific studies ever been done on this? Care to comment?

Brittany said...

Just wanted to add some information about the making of the suit after speaking with Steve Wilkinson, a NASA researcher who tested the fabrics of the suit...he notes that NASA role in the project was to characterize the drag forces of fabrics that Speedo provided them. NASA has entered into a space agreement with Speedo--Speedo sends them candidate fabrics and they measure the drag forces in a small wind tunnel and send the data back to Speedo. These are fabrics with different weave patterns, which Wilkinson refers to "distributed roughness" that NASA examines to understand why different surfaces have different levels of drag. NASA is only involved in the testing of the material not in the design, creation, etc of the actual suit. The benefit to NASA is that they form a data base of the viscous drag of different materials and for them this is important for airplanes, aircraft, equipment,etc. The idea is the same for airplanes and swimmers: how to make something faster and to do so how do you get rid of the roughness? Wilkinson explains that roughness may be on microscopic levels.

Jamie said...

HI Ross

In rowing we also have an interaction with water and this aspect of the technique/training generally has a bigger impact than the physiology.

FISA our international federation dealt with similar issues as swimming is going through in the 70's and 80's when some countries started using riblets running the length of the boats hull and also applied what was called "fish slime" which changed the properties of the hull/water interface and made significant difference in time (10 sec in a 6 min race.

The riblets were banned because of the expense as they were very easily damaged and had to be replaced often and the "fish slime" was banned as it was deemed a pollutant in the water

Our rules now say the following:
Bye-Law to Rule 31 - Boats and Equipment

1.4 No substances or structures (including riblets) capable of
modifying the natural properties of water or of the boundary
layer of the hull/water interface shall be used.

It would seem that the claims of Speedo/NASA indicate that with the new suits this boundary layer between the body/suit and the water is definitely modified. Whether FINA consider this unfair or not will be the deciding factor in the debate

As far as the expense is concerned it may be all equal at the Olympics where budgets are massive but what about the sport lower down. Is it fair to expect all U15 swimmers to be able to afford a R5000 suit or will some poorer kids be domed to loose because their moms and dads cant raise that kind of money.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

hI Jamie

Once again, great comments and insight. I may use that in a follow up post I'm planning on the subject, perhaps in a couple of days.

But really interesting. I also received an email from a Professor in Spain who is one of the leading researchers on swimming, and he added some valuable comment, so tha should all come out.

once again, thanks for your input!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

hi Energetich

Thanks for the input - you make a good point about "passive" vs. "active".

I'd even add to that and say that not all passive devices are "equal". If you look at the Pistorius case, his carbon fibre legs, while passive, are still better than human tendons when it comes to energy return. Similarly, most companies have swimsuits that improve hydrodynamics and fluid movement over the body, but it would seem that some are better than others...

As for the compression garments, who knows? I've actually started reading up on that, with the intention of doing a post or two in the future, and this is a similar case. I don't have the answers, but as you say, I fear we're all sliding down a slippery slope right now! I wonder whether the same things happened back with they created tartan tracks, as one other commenter has noted. And when the old wooden tennis rackets were replaced by high-tech composites, the same debate would have existed.

The issue is prevalent in all sports, it seems, and I'd hate to have try to regulate it. Though, as Jamie reports from rowing, it's been done before...


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Anonymous

Good question. When I wrote this post, I actually had a section in there talking about the milers of the past, and asking the same question you did, though I wondered about Roger Bannister. It's impossible to determine whether improvements are due to technology or physiology (which includes efficiency), though it's almost certainly a combination of both.

I guess with the tartan tracks, at least one can say that everyone runs the race on the same surface, so again, the debate is limited to world records. I think that's a better option than seeing one guy competing with an advantage no one else has! Do the swimsuits do this? I suspect so, and I'd hate to be guy who is maybe 1 second off an Olympic medal, but can't get the suit (for any number of reasons) knowing that the three guys ahead of me are about to get faster without additional training!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hey Brittany

Thanks for the information - i'll do another post on this based on some really interesting feedback I've received from a scientist I know, and I'll add your information to that post.


MarkyV said...

As a wetsuit and speedsuit designer myself I find it funny the debate around this subject. The advent of the hydrophobic suits is just another technological advancement. If the suit doesn't propel you in anyway then have at it. I am not a fan of marketing and when I see speedo tout that these WRs are being set b/c of "their" suit I begin to wonder if the it's the speedo athlete contract budget that is actually setting the records. I would love to see a TYR or Arena or.... on any of these same athletes and would gather that the records would still happen, and it's possible that they could be even faster.

This is not the end of the threshold breaking. Some things in the pipeline from some other companies that will raise some eyebrows... but because they may not have the budget to outfit the fastest in the pool the technological advances that these suits have (IMO superior to LZR) may not be known to the greater market.

And now we can bow down to the all holy marketing dollar. :(

So... where's that post on Boulder. ;)

Unknown said...

In my opinion, they should be disallowed. Upon reading this, my initial thought was, "they should swim naked," because when somebody breaks a record, the name is what's remembered. So-and-so broke the record. It should be about them, what they did in the water, and not what their equipment did for them.

Flippers would make them faster by changing the shape of their body, as does this suit as long as its true that it causes "changes in the body shape underwater... [fixing the position of] the fat and reducing the perimeter" (which I assume is desirable in swimming). If it's something other than the swimmer's muscles doing the work, it should not be allowed. Naked is a stretch, but the next best thing would be to have everybody fitted with identical suits (but this in turn will inevitably be beneficial to some and to the detriment of others, but the difference will definitely not be full seconds). I'd like to see that. Fitted suits, let them pick their color schemes, but in the end, the best swimmer should be determined by the swimmer as a result of his training, not his equipment.

Anonymous said...

News about Beijing Olympics 2008.

Anonymous said...

News about Beijing Olympics 2008.

Anonymous said...

the suits are illegal..
just let them use them

Anonymous said...

In speed skating, the clap skate changed most of speed skating. In sailing changing from cloth sails and wooden hulls to new materials and fiberglass/carbon fiber. In soccer the change in shoe technology has allowed better shaping of shots. In baseball/softball metal bats changed the hitting area of the bat and changed the game...

Technology will always change the game. But the swimmers still need to swim.

Exactly what is the problem? The economics of purchasing the suits for each of the olympic class swimmers?

mcgrathe said...

Just on the passive/active energy storage devices. Let's remember as well that a bicycle is entirely dependent on the energy input from its rider yet we don't advocate that bicycles should be allowed in marathons. It may be an extreme case but it does highlight the advantage that a mechanical device can give to a competitor. The question then becomes which devices do you permit to be used within the bounds of that sport and when do you draw a line under it and say that if you want to use these devices then you must do it in a different forum - for example swimming events where flippers are permitted or aluminium baseball bats at certain levels of that sport (not at the top level however).
It is a very tough area to really figure out - as Andy mentioned there have been lots of different technological advancements in lots of different sports over the years. If equipment changes across the board then of course there is no competitive problem - just the world record issue. Nobody thinks for example that Mike Slade and his crew are the best crew to sail the Atlantic - however everyone agrees that they have the fastest boat (ICAP Leopard). Taking the clap skates as an example though, they are clearly much faster than the old style skates - taking it a step further, if someone invented a form of spring system on the skates so that energy could be stored much more efficiently on each push, would that be equally acceptable? Races would still be true-run but records would be rendered meaningless.
Personally, I don't think it's a huge jump to see a situation in 10 to 15 years time where there is a restricted form of swimming that places a limit on the areal extent of a swimsuit perhaps - no covering above the waist or below the knees would be a simple solution (leaving aside the validity of current world records in light of such a rule).

Anonymous said...

What's really sad is that we'll NEVER again have the opportunity to compare swimming times across the ages. The top swimmers will lose their potential top speeds for unaided swimming, and there will be no way to compare their abilities and times with those previous.