Making Sense of a Major Mess: Not an Easy Task

By John Lohn

CRANBURY, New Jersey. APRIL 27. WHAT the heck does fast mean anymore? Do we really have any idea? Is something fast because the time is a world record, or buzzes in the vicinity of a global standard? Or, does fast have to be measured – as in, can you please describe the garment used for the in-question performance?

Unfortunately, I don't have a darn clue, not even the slightest idea. To be honest, I haven't had a clue for more than a year, since this high-tech suit phenomenon took root, then became an out-of-control brush fire. Oh yeah, there were times I thought I had this topic figured out. Turns out, that's never been the case.

There was a point during this whole suit saga where I adopted the following thought process: Technology is part of life, and we need to accept change and the dropping times that will accompany the developing swimwear available from the United States to Europe to Australia. No sense in bitching about progress.

That was then. Now? Well, my viewpoint has changed – to say the least. As we see more and more records fall – world and national – it's increasingly obvious that the sport has become, to a degree, farcical. It used to be that it was easy to identify the studs of the aquatic world, a deep appreciation evident for the likes of Michael Phelps, Aaron Peirsol and Kosuke Kitajima, to name a few. These days, do we really know the skill level of, say, Spain's Rafael Munoz?

Over the weekend, while competing at the French Nationals, Munoz nearly took down the world record of 50.40 in the 100 butterfly. The Spaniard touched the wall in 50.46, just off the world mark of Ian Crocker, set at the 2005 World Championships in Montreal. No doubt Munoz is a talented man, but how gifted? To drop nearly three seconds in two years just doesn't happen without help, obviously from the suit.

When Crocker sped to that 50.40 effort, I was fortunate enough to be present for the performance. To this day, it is the most breathtaking swim I've witnessed in person, the thought of a 49-second showing briefly providing goosebumps as Crocker neared the wall. To see Munoz almost take down that legendary standard sent a sinking feeling through the body, knowing full well he only challenged the mark because he was clad in apparel that far outweighed what Crocker was wearing.

The joke became funnier Sunday, when Fred Bousquet became the first man under 21 seconds in the 50 free, long-course mind you. The American record for short-course is 21.18. Yes, what a laugh this whole thing has become.

Amazingly, there are some folks out there who continue to argue that the suits are not playing as big a role as some are claiming. They say hard work and advancements in training methods account for the drops in time. How this belief is possible is beyond me. Yes, developments in training are surely occurring, but athletes hacking two and three seconds off their best times in a matter of months goes well beyond solely a physical gain. And, it could be conceivable that these drastic time drops brought on by the suits are masking drops also aided by performance-enhancing drug use.

FINA is expected to release the results of its testing process soon, and some of these weapons (face it, that's what they are) will be banned, Jaked hopefully among them. Unfortunately, some will probably pass through the FINA gauntlet and a return to what the sport was in the dawn of 2008 will probably never happen. If nothing else, though, it will be a start.

Until then, I'll continue to ask myself the question: What is fast? As athletes continue to bring the digits on the stopwatch lower, I'll have to sit back and first ask, "What was he/she wearing." Then, I'll start to contemplate how to compare it to the times of the past. Sadly, I don't have a conversion chart to sift through the mess, leaving me lost and disappointed.