Number 4 in our top 5 has been awarded to textile advances in swimming. This is a fairly controversial inclusion; it is often used as an example of technological doping. I.e. cheating through the use of technology. However, looking back over the history of swimming, I’m almost 100% certain that none of the swimmers lining up on pool side in London would have wanted to swap their scientifically designed outfit for an all in one woollen ensemble.
Swimming has been in the Olympics since 1896. The primary function of the swimsuits in those early stages was modesty; the suits were typically knitted and covered the majority of the body (it was quite controversial for females in to display their upper legs in competition). Due to the woollen fabric, the suits would actually absorb water during the races and become increasingly heavy. In the 1924 Olympics, the British team wore silk swimsuits that were much lighter but were very expensive and only the elite swimmers were able to afford them.
Early advances in swimsuit shape were based on the notion of size, to make them as small as possible in order to reduce drag. However, FINA quickly ensured that there was a regulation that stated the swimwear "shall be in good moral taste”. A more acceptable solution came from the development of synthetic fabrics such as nylon in the 1950’s and Lycra in the 1980’s. This enabled suits to be cheaper, better fitting and more comfortable to wear.
Figure 1 – Early woollen swim suits (left), Controversial Speedo LZR suit (right)
As swimsuit designers developed their understanding of the hydrodynamic drag forces, they realised that reshaping the body and using textured swimsuits was more advantageous than trying to minimise the suit. In the early 2000’s Speedo developed a new swimsuit (Fastskin) that was inspired by the skin texture of a shark. Although used in various guises at the Sydney and Athens Olympics, the suit design was first used in anger by the American women’s bobsled team at the Winter Olympics in 2006.
Figure 2 – Women’s USA bobsled team, 2006.
In 2008 the Speedo swimsuit reached its most hydrodynamic iteration: called the LZR, the suit was designed in collaboration with NASA. The suit was comprised of polyurethane panels that were ultronsonically welded together to ensure there were no seams that would disturb the flow of water. The polyurethane panels also helped to trap air, increasing the buoyancy of the swimmer. The tight structure of the body suit helped mould the swimmer into a more streamlined shape reducing the effects of drag. The LZR suit and other polyurethane full body suits were worn for 2 years (2008 – 2009) over which an estimated 130+ world records were broken (red markers on graph). These massive drops in race times made FINA question whether the suits were actually a form of ‘technological doping’ and detracting from the spirit of the sport. In 2010 FINA introduced new rules that limited the coverage of the suits (waist to knee for men, and shoulder to knee for women) and prevent the use of polyurethane (or non-knitted textile) panels.
Figure 3 -Mean of top 3 performances for Men’s 100 m freestyle swimming (Graph courtesy of Leon Foster)
The London 2012 Olympics was the first in 16 years where swimmers were not allowed to wear full length bodysuits and people were worried that records set in 2008/2009 would never be broken. But their worries were not justified, 9 world records were broken in London, which is back to a similar level before the suits were introduced. This demonstrates that it is not just the suits that play an important role in enabling the swimmers to go faster; goggles and swim caps have been the latest focus of hydrodynamic analysis, but on the day, it still ultimately depends on the person in the water.