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Phelps clad in glory, but his sport wears emperor's new clothes

August 3, 2009 | 12:09 pm


(All the rage: Michael Phelps reacts to his 100-meter butterfly win over Milorad Cavic, in foreground.  Photo: Domenico Stinellis / Associated Press)

A number of writers doing postmortems on Michael Phelps' victory over Milorad Cavic are saying it proved that the sport still is more about racing than about high-tech suits.

The truth is it proved only that Phelps is: 1) an incredible butterfly swimmer; 2) as fierce a competitor as the sport ever has seen; and 3) also the beneficiary of suit technology.

I mean, it's not as if the Speedo LZR full-body model Phelps wore in the 100-meter butterfly final Saturday at the world championships is a hunk of rubberized junk.  In fact, it -- and its other Speedo models -- was the starting point for Suit Wars, as other companies worked to come up with suits that improved on the LZR's performance-enhancing qualities.

After all, swimmers using the LZR got 51 of the 55 long-course world records set in 2008.  And the one Phelps used Saturday to beat the outspoken Cavic is among those banned after Jan. 1, 2010, when men cannot use suits that extend beyond the waist and knees (shoulders and knees for women).

It goes without saying that Phelps won the race in world-record time. (Cavic also bettered the world record he had set the day before.)  It also goes without saying that this would have been just another race had Cavic not provoked Phelps by 1) saying touch-pad technology cost him the Olympic gold in the event after beating Phelps to the wall, which official timekeeper Omega said last week is true:  "It is for sure Cavic touched the pad before Phelps'') and 2) offering to buy the greatest swimmer in history one of the Arena X-Glide suits Cavic wore.

Anyone in swimming -- or the media -- who criticizes Cavic for words enlivening a sport that is the aquatic equivalent of watching sea grass grow is crazy. The California-bred Serb challenged Phelps to a duel at 100 meters, Phelps won it, and it drew lots of attention.

But let's remember the U.S. star also was no match for Germany's Paul Biedermann, a swimmer who ordinarily couldn't carry Phelps' Speedo briefs, in both the open 200 freestyle and the first leg of the 4 x 200 freestyle relay. The result of the open 200, when Biedermann admitted the advantage his Arena suit  provided, sent everyone, including Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, into a swivet.

Biedermann's best time in 2008 was 1:46, or 3.14 seconds behind the world record Phelps set in the Olympic final (with a LZR).  At the worlds, the German swam a world record 1:42 in the open 200 (to 1:43.22 for Phelps) and 1:42.81 on the relay (to 1:44.49 for Phelps.)

Now some of that difference may have owed to Phelps' relative (to his own past) lack of training, since he returned to the pool only in February after his post-Olympic break. He still was good enough to win both butterfly races in world-record times because his butterfly is so far the best in history he could swim it naked (or "blind,'' as happened in Beijing, when his goggles filled with water) and still be as good or better than anyone else.

But the suits clearly had a huge impact on the 200 free, just as they did on every one of the 43 world records set in the meet.

So what are the conclusions one can draw from all this?

1.  Phelps was smart enough -- and loyal enough --  to realize who lines his pockets. It was Speedo that first made him a millionaire, and it was Speedo whose technology helped him become a multimillionaire by winning eight Olympic gold medals.

2.  The nincompoops who run the international swimming federation have allowed their sport's record book and history to be rendered meaningless in the last 18 months by letting technology run amok.  Some day, we will undoubtedly find out how much cash passed under tables to let anything go in the pool.

3.  Justifying the new swimming records through comparisons to faster shoes and faster surfaces in track and field are meaningless. Nothing in track has advanced speed enough to break seven track records set by Soviet bloc, Chinese and U.S. women from 1983 through 1993 that have always carried suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use. Most of the records set in swimming the last two years will likely stand at least that long.

-- Philip Hersh