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


(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

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Comments (5)

What the heck Omega - countering that Phelps did not touch the wall first? Huh. Excuse me. All that mattered then - and matters today in the highly verfified sport of swimming is the time on the wall. The win and who it was recorded by - Michael Phelps.

Talk about who is paying whom and what motivates some corporations to opt in with their opinions after the fact. Omega just sullied themselves and the sport. For no apparent good reason.

And Phelps and his talent and his deserved wins - over and over and over - in the pool. Learn from him.

He is "history" at the express moment all of America needs a truly representative, deserving, honorable symbol of that word.

As if what he did at the 2008 Olympics were not enough - historically so - he tops it all off with stellar performances in Rome. "Time" and record all of that, Omega. Sheez.

I am a former international competitive swimmer and I have to disagree with you and most of the international press regarding your comments on the new swimming suit technologies.

Most sports have embraced technology to improve athletes performance: Football, Golf, Soccer, Tennis, Winter Sports, Running, etc...

The only reason why these technology improvements are more noticeable in swimming, is because they have just arrived to a sport that was in obscurity to the media and money interests from large sport companies until Michael Phelps arrived.

FINA, the nincompoops, as you correctly refer to them, is always trying to impede advancements of the sport. Not only in technology but in general.

You might not remember, but in 1988, David Berkoff, revolutionized backstroke swimming by implementing an underwater butterfly kick at the start of his races, improving the world record in the 100 meter backstroke by almost 1.5 seconds.

A few months later, the nincompoops banned it.

In the early 90´s Matt Biondi and Tom Jeager had to fight against the organization to be able to obtain money from race show downs, in order to remain in the sport after college.

In 1996, Dennis Pankratov, adopted Berkoff´s idea and implemented it in his butterfly races to win two gold medals in both butterfly events at the Atlanta Olympics, and becoming the first man to do so since Mark Spitz.

What did FINA do....a few months later the banned that as well, restricting the underwater kicking to 15 meters only.

and the story goes on...now with these suits.

Is it not the whole point of competitive swimming to be able to swim as fast as one can? isn´t that why we train for?

if technology can assist swimmers in doing that, why is it so different than technology assisting a golfer to hit 300+ drives and improve scores, or helping a tennis player achieve 140 mph serves to win grand slams.

If banning any technological improvement that enhances athletes performances is the way to go; then you and the rest of the sports reporters around the world who opine this way should take similar positions to all other competitive sports where technology imporvements have enhanced the performance of atheletes.

What you are saying is like supporting the ATP to remove all composite rackets from the circuit and make tennis players use wood rackets again. Or to support the PGA in banning all new technology improvements in clubs and go back to using the same materials used when Jack Nicklaus played.

what matters is that Cavic was the better one as Omega officals said he touched the wall first but did not touch it as hard as Phelps did. Omega officals explained it all and in the history books it will always be known that Cavic was actually faster. Because of the incident it will be remembered that way I can assure u that

Suits !?! OK . But OMEGA saying that Cavic touched the pad first(now officially)!!!!HELLO!!!!!!!!!!!!! and what ..,that is it. How come that everyone is failing to recognize a simple fact that Cavic won the race.You jump in the water,you swim ...if you get to the end first you are the winner.

Dear Lorraine,
All that matters in ANY time is the truth about who really WON the race in question, or any other race. Who was the better sportsman. In this case it was Milorad Cavic. Whether you want it to be Michael Phelps and are ready to live happily in denial, or America ‘needs’ that to be so, makes no difference, or should not make any difference. Hence, what Omega did (a year later – absolutely shameful!) was done for the best reason there is – to state the TRUTH and correct wrong done to the person who won the race. Maybe Phelps should show that he is a man you think he is and hand over that gold medal to the person who deserves it - Milorad Cavic.


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