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Tech swimsuits were launched in 2000 to replace lycra-based women's one-pieces and men's briefs. They are made of polyurethane and protect the whole body with the exception of the ears. The suits elicited mixed responses from swimmers, with some praising them and some criticizing them. The tech suits, according to analysts, offered swimmers an edge over their rivals who were not wearing them.
The suits were composed of a very thin film of a foam-like fabric that tapped tiny amounts of hydrogen, increasing the buoyancy of the swimmer. It caused the swimmers to float faster, resulting in less drag. In short, the suits were considered hydrophobic because they pushed water away from the swimmer. They also smoothened out the body shape; the body became wrinkle-free and seamless as opposed to the drag added by the joint between the swimmer’s body and the swimsuit’s cord. They reduced the total drag on a swimmer by about eight percent. They also provided swimmers with the impeccable conditioning or ideal physique required to win the race. With the suit, a swimmer with a stocky and muscled body had the same ability as the one with a long, lean body. Individuals with soft stomachs and six-pack abs also had the same core strength. There was also a technological race among the tech suits manufacturers concerning the most superior outfits for their clients. Top swimmers entered deals with these companies, and they could not switch in case a better suit was manufactured by another company (Barrow 25).
Retired swimmers questioned the use of the suit and FINA’s integrity since no regulations were forbidding the use of costumes that increased a swimmer’s endurance, buoyancy, and speed. A former world record holder in two hundred meters freestyle, Franziska Van Almsick said that the swimming body should not permit a whole body condom, which only shows the swimmer’s face. Seventeen months after the introduction of the LZR racer into the market, a hundred and thirty world records were broken. Seven of these records were broken in the Beijing Olympics, one of them belonged to Michael Phelps. He even threatened to boycott future competitions if tech suits were used. Salo, Rebecca Soni’s coach, stated that the lack of regulations by FINA allowed many swimsuit companies to manufacture swimming gear which boosted a swimmer’s abilities. Salo complained that the suits devalued athleticism and people who were not in good shape became streamlined like seals the moment they wore the costumes. Due to this outcry, FINA officials decided to carry out tests buoyancy tests on four hundred swimsuit models and only approved two hundred and two. Ten suits did not pass the test, including the one belonging to Tyr Sport which was favored by Matt Grevers, American backstroker, and sprint freestyler. Grevers said that without his tech suit he was mentally prepared to be slower and his body was going to hurt more (Crouse 7-9).
In 2009, the FINA officials decided that swimmers should show more skin as from the 2010 world championships due to many complaints by some professional swimmers and the governing body for swimming in America. 180 countries voted for America’s proposal to ban tech suits and only allow the previously used textile suits while seven voted against it. They also required the swimming attire to be made of more permeable material and zippers were not allowed. The maximum skin coverage allowed for any swimsuit was from navel to kneecap for men and from shoulder to kneecap for women. Phelps applauded FINA’s decision about banning the use of tech suits in competitions (Crouse 10). In the 2010
Olympics, only four individuals retained their world records from the tech suits era. FINA did not nullify the records set by athletes who wore tech suits. However, they are marked separately in the field and track record books. Biesel also welcomed the ban by saying that anyone can be a fast swimmer in the tech suits. He also added that swimmers now need to work hard I order to win because they could no longer depend on the costumes. Missy Franklins also supported the move by FINA and said that the regulations ensured a fair competition. Franklins won 4 gold medals at the London Games in 2012.
The USA Swimming body wants to maintain the current regulations, but this will not be simple because swimming companies have a significant influence in the sport. Chuck Wielgus, the executive director, said that they are not opposed to scientific advancements; they wanted the athletes’ performances to be based on their hard work without technological boosts, specifically swimsuits. He also added that swimming suit companies always push the envelope then they sponsor the swimming governing bodies. According to Cornel Marculescu, FINA does not intend to change the current rules. However, there was room for innovation. Several companies have tried to improve the quality of their swimsuits (Terrill 78).
After the ban of the tech suits in 2009, Speedo began to research how to make swimmers faster. The company had to thinks outside the box. The company’s representatives met outside Aqualab and held conferences with coaches, research consultants and joining academics. They even met at an English country house to brainstorm on new ideas, mostly inspired by Captain Avenger. Joe Santry, the research head at Speedo’s Aqualab in Nottingham, stated that some of the suit combinations resembled superhero suits in Marvel comics. In the end, the company decided to invent a whole racing system and not just the attire. The system was a combination of the suit, the cap and the goggles. The company took four years comprising of 55,000 work hours to come up with the perfect outfit. The internal team composed of nineteen people was joined by hydrodynamic experts, nano-textile manufactures and aircraft engineers. They also included a sports psychologist who stated that introducing a blue-gray tint on the goggle lenses would result in the sense of focus and calm.
The company also scanned swimmers in 3D and created avatars so that the fluid dynamics software could point out regions with drag and turbulence. They discovered that the goggles and the head caused a lot of turbulence on top of the swimmer; this slowed his/ her down and reduced the suit’s effect. Speedo decided to redesign the cap and goggles; they scanned swimmers’ heads globally and entered their results in software that identified the average head shape fitting 95% of the swimmers. The 3-Dprinter at Aqualab fabricated prototypes of the googles and the cap within hours for testing. For the swimsuit, the new fabric included the addition of lycra in some areas. The company utilized two fabrics to come up with a material called “Exo-Core” which provided both the flexibility and compression desired by the most successful swimmer in the Olympics. The new suit compressed the body; more constriction was on the hips and buttocks than the chest and stomach; this resulted in a more streamlined figure for swimmers. Speedo claimed that the new suit reduced active drag by 5.2% and passive drag by 16.6% compared to a standard swimsuit. The costume was flexible, fast, hydrodynamic and compressive. Researchers at Iowa State also discovered that the new suit improved oxygen economy by eleven percent (Morrison 45-47).
Speedo introduced the Fastskin LZR Racer X just before the Rio Olympics. It described the new swimsuit as a one-way stretch technology that enables increased flexibility and a thinner fabric in the core area of women’s suits so that swimmers have a better feel of the water and reduce drag. The suit also had an “X” strip at the back to give the name of the ensemble more power. Most people agree that high-end suits enable athletes to swim faster compared to suits picked from store shelves. However, Bruce Gemmel, Katy Ledecky’s coach, stated that it is just the placebo effect. He said that all outfits are the same and he did not see himself getting a suit contract (Terrill 75-76).
In conclusion, tech suits provided swimmers with an advantage over others since they increase the buoyancy and reduce the drag. In the beginning, there were no rules against their use. However, the USA Swimming body presented a bill to ban the use of tech suits, and their move was supported by 179 other countries. The ban was supported by decorated athletes such as Michaels Phelps and Missy Franklins. Speedo also welcomed the move and introduced a new swimsuit called “Fastskin LZR Racer X” just before the Rio Olympics.
Barrow, John D. "Why Ban Full-Body Olympics Swimsuits? A Scientist Explains Polyurethane." The Daily Beast (2017): 20-30.
Crouse, Karen. "Swimming Bans High-Tech Suits, Ending an Era." The New York Times (2009): 5-10.
Morrison, Jim. "How Speedo Creatted a Record-Breaking Swimsuit." Scientific American (2012): 40-48.
Terrill, Mark J. "Is Rio the end of high-tech swimsuits?" Chicago Tribune (2016): 74-80.
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