Column by John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey. August 17. The medal detector so successfully used by Brendan Hansen during his international swimming career has been in his garage for a year. And considering the state of the sport, with record-breaking that has been a sham at all levels, Hansen has no regrets about taking 2009 away from the pool.
Hansen has been working diligently with PureSport, the upstart energy drink company of which he is a partner. He's also watched swimming change drastically, and in a sad way. The sport to which he has dedicated the majority of his life is a mess. It is dominated not by sheer talent, but by a wardrobe nightmare that has blurred the line between skill and technological support and has allowed mid-level performers to compete alongside the best of the best.
The recent World Championships in Rome, of course, provided the perfect illustration of how muddled swimming has become. While setting a world record was once a special feat, there were 43 global marks set during the eight-day competition at the outdoor Foro Italico, which would have been a more fitting venue had it been covered by a circus tent.
"I watched zero of it," said Hansen, who was the two-time defending world champion in the 100 breaststroke. "I wasn't interested because of the suit situation. You can't compare what went on there with anything that was done before, so it wasn't worth looking at. Being the hardest worker doesn't get you what it did in the past."
For much of Hansen's career, he controlled the outcome of his races. Possessing the perfect combination of power and technique, Hansen rose to the top of his events, along with Japan's Kosuke Kitajima, the double Olympic champion in 2004 and 2008. The hours Hansen spent training and honing his stroke were the reasons for his vast success at every level.
In February 2008, however, the sport changed with Speedo's unveiling of the LZR Racer, the high-tech swimsuit designed with the help of NASA. The swimwear included polyurethane panels and enabled swimmers, through body compression, to be buoyant and maintain better position in the water, particularly in the latter portion of races, when fatigue is supposed to take over.
The LZR was the dominant suit at the 2008 Olympics, worn by the majority of medalists and responsible for a slew of world records. But by the time the World Championships rolled around, it was obsolete, an analog player in a digital world. The Italian companies Arena and Jaked had developed better suits, made almost entirely of polyurethane, and these rubber products enabled swimmers well down the world rankings prior to the suit storm to suddenly contend for world-championship medals.
More, several national-team coaches have stated the suits have been a bigger aid to some swimmers than others. That group includes France's Lionel Horter and the United States' Mark Schubert.
"To be honest, it is hard to accept," Hansen said. "I could have been a mediocre swimmer, but I chose to do everything I could to be the best. I based decisions in my life around that. Now, you see someone put on these new suits and they jump up a level, but without changing a thing with their stroke or how much they train. That doesn't add up."
How much have the high-tech suits changed the sport? Consider this: Before they were introduced to the sport in early 2008, only three men had ever broken the one-minute barrier in the 100 breaststroke and the 2:10 barrier in the 200 breast.
Hansen was the world-record holder in the shorter distance, his best time of 59.13 nearly a half-second quicker than the No. 2 performer in history. Meanwhile, Hansen held the global standard in the 200 breast at 2:08.50, and was the only member of the sub-2:09 club.
This year alone, 19 men have cracked a minute for the 100 breast and 23 have gone under 2:10 for the 200 breaststroke. As for the world records, they now stand at 58.58 for the 100 and 2:07.31 for the 200, those standards the products of the technological doping, as one Italian coach once put it, that has neutralized exquisite technicians such as Hansen and Kitajima.
Since February 2008, more than 190 world records have been set.
If there is a positive development, it's the fact that FINA, the sport's international governing body, is outlawing the high-tech suits effective Jan. 1, 2010. At that point, only textile fabrics will be allowed and male swimmers will be required to wear jammers, swimsuits that start at the hips and end just above the knees. Gone will be the bodysuits, some of which stretched to the ankles and were cut around the shoulders, therefore covering the torso.
"Going to jammers, that will be good because it will be swimming again," said Hansen, who has stayed in shape and is competing in triathlons. "But it could be bad, too, because we won't see records for a long time and people like world records if they mean something. FINA didn't know this was going to happen, but they could have changed it. They could have done something earlier and gotten rid of the suits. FINA got caught with its pants down."