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The revolution had been taking shape for quite some time, but it wasn't until the black week at Belgrade last September that the swimming world began to pay serious notice. The East German women so solidly whomped their U.S. counterparts at the World Aquatic Games in Yugoslavia, winning 10 of 14 events and setting seven world records, that puzzled experts began looking about for the reasons. And the more they looked, to put it plainly, the more obvious the answer became.
As early as the Munich Olympics the East German women had shown up in skintight, high-neck swimsuits that in or out of the water made them resemble sleek wet seals, but their performance in the 1972 Games was not impressive enough to occasion more than admiring glances from girl-watchers or the admission by other competitors that the German suits were frankly revealing.
But in the wake of the Belgrade debacle, Mrs. Dianne Rothhammer, who had been in Yugoslavia to watch her daughter Keena compete for the U.S., summed up what had become a growing suspicion: "The East Germans couldn't be that much better trained than we are. The suits had to have something to do with it." She decided to import the suits to the U.S. despite the fact that while she was tracking down the manufacturer, U.S. girls (or their parents) proclaimed that they would never wear anything so provocative. "Swimmers themselves don't look at each other," one girl said. "It's the people in the stands and TV viewers who would make us nervous."
Bill Lee, the North American manager for Speedo swim wear, was more blunt. "These suits are gross," he said. "You can see everything." His outrage is now academic. Gross or not, the skinsuit is available through Mrs. Rothhammer, and competing firms have moved fast to copy it—including Speedo.
Olympian Shirley Babashoff, wearing the latest 1�-ounce model in the photograph at right, is one of the first U.S. women to own a Belgrad (the name given the suit by its designer, West Germany's Dr. Conrad Dottinger). She wore a standard four-ounce Belgrad for the first time last April at the National AAU Indoor Short Course championships in Dallas and clipped more than five seconds off the American record in the 500-yard freestyle. "I feel the suits are not indecent as long as everybody wears them," said Babashoff.
Heather Greenwood, who set a world record in the 400-meter free on June 9, allows, "I don't know how much my Belgrad suit contributed to my time, but it's worth something. The suit sticks to me, and there's a lot less drag because water doesn't get down the front." Later she conceded, "This may be more psychological than physical; I always think I'm going to win when I wear it." In both cases the skinsuits incorporated the first major changes in competitive swim-wear design in 13 years, and swimmers wearing them are setting records with regularity.
The pioneer skinsuit worn by the East Germans at the 1972 Games was made of a very fine cotton that, when wet, was virtually transparent. The 1973-74 version, also unlined and weighing four ounces, is made of a membranelike rubberized knit called Lycra and is a bit more opaque. The suit stretches over the body like a second skin, offering an adhesive fit that makes the name skinsuit a natural. By suggestion of Dianne Rothhammer the U.S.-model Belgrad has a bikini lining.
Most world-class competitors have worn White Stag Speedo suits since the 1960 Rome Olympics, largely because of the supersalesmanship of Bill Lee, who discovered the Australian nylon-tricot suit in 1958 when he was looking for something better for his daughter to wear in competition. Lee liked the suit so much that by 1960 he had sold 1,500 of them out of his home in California. He left his job with an advertising agency to work exclusively with Speedo, and in 1961 when White Stag became Speedo's North American distributor, Lee became its representative and proceeded to corner the world market. Recently, when Lee was asked how Speedo was going to respond to the sleek new challenger, he said, "We began making our own skinsuits 30 seconds after the Belgrade meet."
The new Speedo version for women, a mix of 78% nylon and 22% Lycra, weighs two ounces and has a racer-style back with the fabric pared away.
Another firm noted for athletic gear but heretofore landlocked is now getting its feet wet: Adidas is producing the Arena skinsuit in France. The women's version will make its debut in two weeks at the AAU Long Course Nationals in Concord, Calif. So far, this model promises to be the lightest in the world, weighing less than one ounce and featuring a multicolored diamond pattern. Arena feels the diamonds will serve two purposes. First, they can be in team or national colors; second, because of the suit's extreme gossamer quality, Arena feared that a solid color might unsettle women wearers. Indeed, the tricolor pattern makes the suit seem opaque. Arena calls its mystery fabric Elastomere and claims it is different from the other stretchy materials. Elastomere feels like silky tissue paper because it is woven with a fine elastic thread rather than knitted as the other skinsuit fabrics are. Putting on the Arena suit has been likened to "slipping into a sheer silk stocking."