IF THERE is a downside to the new swimsuit being touted as the fastest in the world, it's that it might be the slowest in the world to get into. "It was difficult at first," says Ryan Lochte, who won two medals for the U.S. in the 2004 Olympics. "But now it only takes me three minutes."
Still, given the recent rash of records set in the Speedo LZR Racer, a little extra time in the locker room wiggling into a tight suit is a small price to pay. Since Feb. 12, when the suit was unveiled, 37 world records have been set—all but two in the LZR Racer. Yes, the swimmers breaking the marks were world class to begin with (among the teams wearing the suit are the U.S. and Australia). But that hasn't stopped the LZR Racer from becoming the sport's hottest topic. After France's Alain Bernard lowered three record times while wearing the suit at the European championships, French swimming federation technical director Claude Fauquet said an ethical committee should debate the LZR Racer. And Alberto Castagnetti, coach of the Italian national team, likened wearing the LZR to "technological doping," saying, "It removes the purely competitive aspect of the sport and puts outside factors into play."
The product of three years of development (and some input from NASA), the LZR Racer is made of fabric panels that are "ultrasonically welded" together, leaving the suit seamless. It is then coated with a Teflon-like substance to repel water (it absorbs far less water than a conventional suit). Speedo says it has 5% less drag than its previous suits. "Your hips are higher in the water," says Kate Ziegler, the world-record holder in the 1,500-meter freestyle. "You feel like you're zipping across the surface."
That's where the controversy begins. Critics of the suit—which will be available to the public in June, starting at $290—claim that it makes swimmers more buoyant. FINA, swimming's international governing body, issued a statement last week that read, "To the best of our knowledge, there is no objective scientific evidence on the alleged buoyancy advantage provided."
FINA met with suit manufacturers last week in Manchester, England, where FINA reconfirmed that the suit was legal. As a result, several swimmers now say they are contemplating parting with their sponsors and wearing the LZR when the Olympic swimming competition begins in Beijing on Aug. 9.