Is it the equipment or the athlete?

Michael Phelps is the star of the 2008 Summer Olympics, as should be. Picking up 8 gold medals, and doing it seven times at a world record pace, he has more than reached celebrity status, and elevated to “sports explosion”. But honestly, how much of his recent achievement can be credited to the athlete, and how much should we credit his equipment? Not that I’m trying to burst anyone’s Phelps swimming bubble, but it’s definitely food for thought.

Phelps today reflected back on the events in Beijing. The 200-meter butterfly was the only collected medal that didn’t come in world record time, and he feels a wardrobe malfunction kept him from being a perfect 8 for 8. But if we’re talking about equipment, and goggles collecting water slowing his pace, then what of the new no-drag swimsuits provided by Speedo? Without a doubt, I believe if the suits didn’t exist, Phelps would still out-swim the world’s best. But if not for the suits, could it be done in record time, and 7 times? In many of the events, though Phelps set new world records, the second and third place finishers were also above the old marks. Either the world’s athletes dramatically increased their water speed or we can give Speedo an assist.

Technology has come a long way since Mark Spitz swam to 7 gold medals in Munich. Strength and conditioning has become a science. There’s more focus on diet, as well as modern machinery used to pinpoint and exercise the necessary muscles to build an Olympic swimming champion. The use of performance enhancing drugs is forbidden. The use of performance enhancing equipment is welcomed. I can see the difference in the two, and understand that one poses a health risk. But when it comes to fairness, why isn’t there more emphasis on the equipment available to athletes today in comparison to athletes of the past? Sentences will begin with “Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time…”, and I find myself waiting for the “but”. “BUT he’s not breaking these records on skill and athleticism alone”, is how the sentence should be completed. In the sport of swimming, 1/100th of a second means so much. In the fashion of swimming, the new no-drag Speedo suit is designed to trim hundredths of a second from swimming times.

If Major League baseball approved the use of aluminum bats for the 2009 season, and sluggers blasted 80+ homeruns, there would be no hesitation to mention the difference in the equipment being used by the modern slugger and a Babe Ruth or Henry Aaron. They would probably call it 80 homeruns in the “aluminum era”. Why is it different for swimming? In the first Greek Olympics, the athletes performed naked. As years went by, they added clothing, some bulky, not wind resistant on tracks, and probably absorbed so much water in a pool that it’s a miracle no one sank to the bottom. Then technology arrives and clothing becomes lighter and specifically designed to add speed to each sport. I don’t believe you can mention the amount of world records broken in the pool of the Beijing “water cube” without giving a mention to the changes in equipment. To me, it lessens the efforts and achievements of past swimmers that performed at a championship level, while possessing less technology to alter speeds.

This isn’t a shot at Phelps, as he is very deserving. This is a shout to past record holders, that are no less.

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~ by Anthony on August 18, 2008.

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