NASA rocket suit will help swimmers set Olympic records

The swimmers who will be battling for gold at the Olympic Games in Paris later this month are betting on the latest trendy swimwear. They will be their secret weapon in the pool.

The competitors believe innovation can be decisive in a sport where medals are sometimes decided from just a finger's distance, although the evidence is not so sure.

Powered by technology inspired by space travel, Speedo has created a new version of its Fastskin LZR Racer suit, billed as the most water-repellent ever.

It is claimed to provide a feeling of 'weightlessness' and will be worn by top swimmers including Australia's Emma McKinnon, American Caleb Dressel and Britain's Adam Peattie, who are looking to shave every hundredth of a second off their times.

"It's my own little Speedo suit," said freestyle and butterfly ace Dressel, who won five gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics with an earlier version of the suit.

"I feel confident the suit will help me," he added.

McKinnon, who won seven medals, including four gold, at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, called her new suit "faster than ever, like the water just gliding by."

The suits use coating technology that was originally used to protect satellites.

They are the latest development in a decades-long battle for supremacy in which other brands such as Arena, Mizuno and Jaked are trying to push the boundaries ever further.

"The biggest factor in swimming is drag, because it's in water, which is by far the main factor in reducing speed," Kevin Netto, an exercise specialist at the Curtin School of Health Care in Perth, told AFP.

"So anything that will change the drag forces is worth its weight in gold."

Over the years, swimwear has gone through flannel, rayon, cotton, silk, latex, nylon and lycra.

Now, the World Aquatics Organization is requiring that they be made of permeable materials after Speedo's controversial all-over swimsuit used at the 2008 Beijing Olympics was branded "technological doping."

Seamless and partially polyurethane, it was developed with NASA's help to aid buoyancy and support muscles by significantly reducing drag and facilitating faster, longer swims.

The model contributed to multiple world records at the Games in China.

More sophisticated models followed, including Arena's partially polyurethane and fully polyurethane suits and the Jaked 01, which scored another record at the 2009 World Championships.

The World Aquatics Federation, then known as FINA, banned the polymer-based suits from 2010 after growing criticism that they offered unacceptable performance-enhancing properties.

Full-body suits have also been banned. They can now only be worn from knee to navel for men and from knee to shoulder for women.

Reducing surface drag from water remains a key task of current suits, compressing the body to aid streamlining.

"If they provide some kind of compression, you won't have any fluctuating mass in the water. Basically it keeps the human form very, very streamlined, you don't get any more oscillation or wave drag," Neto said.

But for all that, the impact of suits on performance remains inconclusive, despite a plethora of research, with advances in diet and training increasingly contributing to swimmers getting faster.

In 2019, the European University of Madrid examined 43 studies on the topic and concluded that there was no clear consensus.

"Controversy exists as there are those who fervently believe that these swimsuits have had some beneficial impact on performance in general," the report said.

"However, the lack of evidence to clarify these opinions casts doubt on any consensus among researchers, despite the passage of years."

It's not just swimwear that has seen dramatic technological advances.

Cutting-edge goggles can now provide real-time information while you swim by tracking a host of indicators that appear inside the goggles, even though they are not allowed at the Olympics. | BGNES