Friday, January 7, 2011

Approaching Peak Performance: FastSkin LZR Racer

Back at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, athletes set twenty five world-record times while dominating the National Aquatic Centre’s swimming pool. By comparison, just 5 world records changed hands throughout the field and track events. On the other hand, a lot of those swimming records fell as a result of innovative swimsuit technology, relative advances which are not applicable to discus throwers, marathoners and hurdlers. Have we really reached our peak athletic performance? A recent study argues that is the case and that without the continued use of space-age technology the heavy applause of Olympic crowds will one day be nothing but silence in the stands. In China’s Capital, both track and field and swimming had their own favorites, genetic freaks that virtually towered over their rivals. In the pool, it was Michael Phelps, the most decorated gold medal Olympian of all time, who broke 4 records, and 3 more as a member of a relay team. On the other hand, there was Usain Bolt, who set 3 world records in track and field on his way to summit. However the presence of super-trained professionals did not explain the surprising rise in the number of world records. What’s more, some believe the difference could be entirely attributed to technology. Almost 95% of swimmers that won races during the 2008 Olympics were wearing the innovative, and many would say controversial, Speedo LZR bodysuit. A suit made out of polyurethane panels, the FastSkin LZR suit was created in NASA research centers and particularly created to reduce viscous drag and skin friction.

Right after Beijing Olympics, several companies wanted to take professional bodysuits to the whole new level. In case the LZR Racer, that’s approximately half polyurethane, helped athletes break world records, manufacturers thought what would actually happen in case they constructed a swimsuit made completely out of slippery polymer. At the FINA 2009 World Aquatics Championships in Rome, Italy Michael Phelps lost the 200 freestyle to Paul Biedermann from Germany, who was in pure polyurethane Arena X-Glide. Michael, who could not bear losing from Biedermann, a swimmer who finished 4 sec behind him in a year ago at Olympics, wanted to boycott international events until the polyurethane bodysuits were completely banned. Right after that, FINA ‘outlawed’ all technical materials, explaining that athletes should wear swimsuits made from woven fabrics or textiles. No matter how one felt about these innovations, there was a real concern about huge number of world records broken in such a short period of time. And by charting the world’s top performances in track and field as well as swimming events for the past century, Geoffroy Berthelot and colleagues from the Institute for Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology in Paris, France have shown that athletes are quickly maxing out on what is ‘humanly possible.’ Excluding mistakes during WW I and II, the time in human history when swimming and athletics was not a priority, charting the yearly top athletic performances shows the people have been consistently approaching its athletic peak since 1900, driven mainly by factors like improvements in gear and exercise regimes.

However in analyzing the information, Geoffroy and his colleagues came across something surprising: Not just were surprisingly fewer world records broken during the last Olympics, actually almost 64% of field and track events have not progressed since ‘93. But (there is always that ‘but’) swimming events continue to steadily improve and the world records keep shattering. While Nike launches a new track shoe every now and again, the manufacturer has not come close to revolutionizing the running as FastSkin did with the swimming. Our gene pool simply does not allow the people to create many super-athletes. Therefore once it comes to the future of the Olympics, maybe people have to take stock of what is of utmost importance. Is it the excitement of worldly competition, or the opportunity to see ‘super-humans’ defy what we believe is possible?