Guest Blog: Shanghai 2011 revisited

This is EngineeringSport’s first guest blog! We are very pleased to present Italian Sports Engineer Nunzio Lanotte’s piece on performance increases in swimming.

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Shanghai 2011 Revisited

The Swimming World Championships held in Shanghai last July were the first major competition (meaning either Long Course World Championships or the Olympic Games) held after FINA (the International Swimming Federation) imposed a ban on full body, Polyurethane swimsuits. In February 2008 the introduction of a new generation of “supersuits” caused not only a revolution in the performance of swimmers, but a bundle of controversy, legal challenges, vitriolic accusations of techno-doping, and terrible headaches for athletes, coaches and companies alike. A detailed report of what someone has called “The year of swimming dangerously” can be found here.

FINA decided in Summer 2009 to forbid not only Polyurethane as a material, but all full body swimsuits (which had started to appear since around 2000).

To make things more complicated, another innovation had been adopted in the previous edition of the Championships (Rome 2009): an angled, adjustable starting block.

A group of French researchers (Berthelot et al: “Performance in swimming, three steps beyond physiology”, Materials today, volume 13, number 11, November 2010) has carried out an extensive analysis of the impact on performance of three waves of full body suits: in 2000 (the Lycra generation), in 2008 ( Lycra-Polyurethane) and in 2009 (100% Polyurethane).

Considering the best performance of the world’s top athletes for each year from 1963 to 2009 in a series of events, they have calculated a best fit curve and estrapolated it beyond that year. The picture below shows the trend line (red) and the performances (black squares) for 1500m freestyle men and 400m freestyle men.

The graph clearly shows a strong gain in performance from 2000 onwards, as the black squares fall well under the trend line. The red line itself shows an asymptotic trend, so there was a fair chance that the overall level of performance could go straight back to the beginning of this century; someone even feared that this drop of performance could create a psychological backlash on athletes.

I don’t have the time or the manpower to carry out a proper research, so I have considered only a few events, namely 100, 200, 400 and 1500 freestyle men in the last 4 world championships (2005, 2007, 2009, 2011).

The first thing to observe is World Records. Two of them have been beaten in Shanghai (200m medley men and 1500m freestyle men), which is a meagre result compared to Montreal 2005 (9 WR), Melbourne 2007 (14 WR) and most notably Rome (42 WR). It means, though, that the world goes on, and progress is still possible.

As for the 4 events I have considered, each of them was on average (i.e. considering the times of the 8 finalists) slower than in Rome, but faster than in Montreal.

The table below shows the percentage gain in performance (measured as the average time of the 8 finalists) in the last 3 editions of the World Championships, using Montreal 2005 as a baseline.


Shanghai 2011

Rome 2009

Melbourne 2007

Montreal 2005

100m FS men





200m FS men





400m FS men





1500m FS men





A few things are clear:

1) As expected, Rome, the only edition with supersuits, is clearly an outlier, showing in two cases a progress of over 2% in just two years.

2) In Rome, the bigger gains were made in the shortest races. The gain in the 1500m wrt Melbourne (0.19%) is in fact less than the Melbourne gain wrt to Montreal (0.33%). It appears that the supersuits become less effective, or even not effective at all, on long distances. This fact has been already observed, for instance in the aforementioned paper, and might have different explanations. My personal opinion is that the supersuits are so tight that the tumble turns can cause fatigue on the athlete, an effect that becomes more relevant on longer distances.

3) Far from bringing performance back to the Clinton years, Shanghai has marked a strong gain wrt Melbourne 2007. Once again, the gain has been bigger on short distances, even if the difference is not as strong as in 2009. At first glance, it doesn’t look like the new starting blocks have given much advantage, though. Split times at 50m don’t seem much faster in Shanghai than in Melbourne.

So it looks as if the end of the swimming world won’t take place anytime soon. On all distances we considered the Rome effect has been already reduced by over 50%, and is completely possible that already in London 2012 it will be cancelled, at least on long distances.

Even without supersuits athletes keep improving their records, and the race to the human limit is still far from over.

About the author:

Nunzio was about 18 when he understood at last that he wouldn’t be the next italian olympic gold medallist in Modern Pentathlon. Nevertheless, he wanted an excuse to keep on training every day without looking like an eternal teenager to his worried parents. So after a MSc in Mechanical Engineering, a few years spent in Venice designing submarine robots and an MBA in Oxford and Paris, he and a fellow pentathlete-engineer decided to create APLab (, an engineering firm specialised in technology for sports. Today APLab machines and devices are used by many leading teams, athletes and universities in Italy and Europe, Nunzio is writing a book about sport tech to be published in 2012 and yes, he still keeps on running, swimming or fencing almost every day.



6 Responses

  1. nunzio

    @alessandra: If the post is successful, there will be a sequel. It’s like Harry Potter and Mission: Impossible.

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