restricted access 1. Black Is the New Fast: Swimsuit Technoscience and the Recalibration of Elite Swimming

From: Game Changer

Johns Hopkins University Press colophon
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An impassioned Bob Bowman exclaimed at the 2009 Fédération Internationale de Natation World Championships: “We’ve lost all the history of the sport . . . ​ the sport is in shambles right now and they better do something or ­ they’re ­ going to lose their guy who fills ­ these seats.” His exclamations came ­ after years of controversy around the design of swimsuits and reconfirmed that swimming had become enveloped in an absurd and surreal technoscientific world. That “guy who fills ­these seats” was Michael Phelps, Bowman’s primary pupil. He couched his plea for the ­ future of the sport in a complex narrative concerned with Phelps’s waning per­for­ mances to ­ those wearing “faster” fast suits and the marketing of competitive swimming when its most marketed swimming hero was no longer winning and potentially on the verge of becoming uncompetitive and irrelevant . His carefully worded statement concluded by proposing a compromise . He suggested that Fédération Internationale de Natation “adjust all the rec­ ords starting with the LZR [Speedo’s rec­ ord-­ breaking swimsuit]. If we took them all out and went back to 2007 . . . ​ even [the rec­ ords] in Beijing . We can have them in a separate list. ­ These ­ were done in polyurethane suits and then ­ these are done in textile suits. Then we can start over in January and make the sport about swimming.”1 By the time Bowman uttered ­ these concerns, swimming had already materially and meta­ phor­ ically dived off the deep end into a world where swimsuit drag coefficients ­ were vastly more impor­ tant than the 1 Black Is the New Fast Swimsuit Technoscience and the Recalibration of Elite Swimming Judging Artifacts 32 number of training laps any athlete had done in the pool. Bowman’s suggestions included turning back the clock, splitting rec­ ord books, and changing the way FINA handled its business, but by most accounts, it was unclear where and how to begin without turning the sport upside down and dismantling the last ele­ ments of its legitimacy. Bowman’s comments at the 2009 World Championships marked the end of a cycle that forever changed the rec­ ord books of swimming but, more importantly, demanded that publics, athletes, and governing institutions no longer ignore the potent effects of technoscience on competitive swimming. Over the past few de­ cades, elite-­ level swimming has been featured prominently in public discussions regarding technoscience and its impact on athletics. Athletes clad from ankle to neck in the black technoscientifically engineered materials became de rigueur for any swimmer wanting to compete for victory. Swimsuits migrated from benign tools crafted to cover the body and display an athlete’s country of origin to an obligatory technoscientific device necessary to be competitive. Swimming analyses quickly turned away from biometrics such as height, stroke rate, arm length, and foot size to obsessive examinations of who wore which com­ pany’s newest suit. The technoscientific power of fast suit technoscience completely subsumed narratives of athletic ability. This technoscientific narrative became so power­ ful that FINA chose to push the reset button and return swimming to an earlier period by banning the types of suits that had produced “unnatural” explosions of per­ for­ mance that quickly rewrote swimming rec­ ord books in less than a de­ cade. ­ These swimsuits undermined beloved narratives of ­ human athletic achievement and as a result had to be removed from the sport to maintain the cherished primacy of the ­ human body. Though late nineteenth-­and early twentieth-­ century suits ­ were made of natu­ ral fibers such as cotton and wool (instead of modern lab-­ based materials such as Lycra and polyurethane), athletes have always chosen to wear the fastest and most competitive suits. Images of elite swimming over the twentieth ­ century narrate a history of smaller and tighter-­ fitting suits. Though this story is not exempt from questions about sexual mores, it is more powerfully a technoscientific timeline of the increasing importance of swimming and winning, and how bodily hydrodynamic efficiency is paramount to swimming success. This is why the introduction of ultrafast technoscientific swimsuits should not come as a surprise. It Swimsuit Technoscience and Elite Swimming 33 should, rather, be viewed as a logical conclusion to a ­ century-­ long effort to swim faster. Swimming fast ­ will always be a ­ battle between athletic ability and hydrodynamic drag. Though early twentieth-­ century swimmers did not use such specific scientific terminology to describe the natu­ ral affordance of ­ water, reducing the drag of an athlete in the ­ water...


Subject Headings

  • Sports -- Technological innovations.
  • Sports -- Physiological aspects.
  • Performance technology.
  • Doping in sports.
  • Sports sciences.
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