It's all getting heated down at the swimming pool in the run up to the Olympics. A total of 37 world records have been broken so far this year. And of the 29 records to fall since Speedo introduced its latest high-tech swimsuit, 28 have gone to swimmers wearing their new LZR Racer outfit. This has caused controversy about a possible unfair advantage for athletes using Speedo's kit, questions on whether the suits break the rules, and whether this is a kind of ‘technological doping’.

The US head swimming coach, Mark Schubert, has even said he feels sorry for swimmers at the Beijing Games sponsored by other manufacturers: “Do you go for the money or go for the gold?”

Speedo's swimsuit, along with the similar Tracer Light product from Tyr, is designed to reduce a swimmer's drag on moving through the water. The suits are made out of lightweight water-repellent material, bonded rather than stitched together. Textured patches are added at points of high friction on the swimmer's body, and the whole suit is designed to shape, girdle, and compress the athlete's body as ideally as possible. In developing the suit, Speedo have worked with NASA on the fabric, the University of Otago, New Zealand in flume tests, made use of the University of Nottingham's expertise in computational fluid dynamics, and gone to Australia to measure the suit's performance.

Speedo's Italian competitor, Arena, issued an open letter to the sport's governing body FINA in protest. “The credibility of sports competitions is at stake,” they claim. The reason? “A firestorm of publicly expressed concern has ensued about the alleged buoyancy advantage provided by Speedo LZR Racer and Tyr Tracer Light swimsuits.” Buoyancy aids are strictly against the rules, but FINA has now issued a simple statement confirming that all swimsuits approved so far comply with regulations.

So do the suits work? Have world records been tumbling beyond what we’d normally expect? Ollie Williams on the BBC Sport site ( points out that, although many more records have fallen this year than in the whole of 2007, more records are broken in Olympics years as athletes get in shape for the Games. But more records have also gone this year than by this time in 2004. Going back a little further, 2000 was a big year for records, coinciding with the introduction of full body suits at the Olympics and a number of exceptional swimmers competing at that time. Williams suggests that we wait until the American trials in July to see if 2008 really is turning out to be an unusual year for records with a similar combination of new swimsuits and great athletes.

I, for one, think sports are improved by advances in technology. Without compromising fairness, who wouldn’t want the best sportsmen and women to make the most of their abilities and get better, faster, more competitive? I’m excited by the prospect of more new records in Beijing.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(08)70101-9