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September 15, 2000
The great swimming cover-upJulian Linden
Spectators accustomed to marvelling at the sculptured, muscled bodies of the world's best swimmers are in for a rude shock when the competitors line up on the blocks at the Sydney Olympics.
Instead of the skimpy little costumes that seemed to get smaller and reveal more and more as each Olympics came and went, most of the top contenders in Sydney will be covered from head to toe in sexless black outfits.
It has nothing to do with fashion or dressing for success. It's all about technology and the need for speed.
The swimmers claim the suits feel great and improve their performances. Fans say they look like seals and have taken the sex appeal out of swimming. In Australia, it's been dubbed the Baywatch vs Stopwatch battle.
The legal debate over whether bodysuits could be worn in Sydney was resolved earlier this year when the sport's governing body FINA approved the body-hugging costumes.
But the argument over whether they are morally acceptable continues to rage.
Australia's Susan O'Neill refused to wear the suit in her bid to break Mary T Meagher's long-standing world record for 200 metres butterfly because she thought it might lead to accusations that the suit made the difference.
She is undecided whether she will wear one at the Olympics even though she succeeded in breaking the mark at the Australian trials.
In the lead-up to Sydney, veteran Australian swimming coach Forbes Carlisle lobbied about 50 countries to push for a ban on the use of the suits, arguing that it was unfair that some of the smaller countries either couldn't afford them or get access to them.
There is also a split on whether the suits actually help the swimmers go faster. While the manufacturers boast that they provide water resistance and reduce drag and can improve times by up to three per cent, not everyone is convinced.
Australian teenage sensation Ian Thorpe, who set three world records in as many days at the Australian trials, swears by them and will definitely wear one in first Olympics.
But Russia's Alexander Popov, who won the 50-100 freestyle sprint double at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta games, has said he will not wear one in Sydney when he bids to become the first male swimmer to win the same event three times.
"I have my own skin," Popov said. "I'll stick with it."
American Tom Dolan, the reigning Olympic champion and world record holder for 400 medley, dismissed the long-john style suits as a gimmick.
"The bottom line is that if you're going fast you'll go fast even if you're wearing a potato sack," he said.
Even some of the swimmers who have decided to wear them are unsure whether they really work.
"I think it's more of a psychological thing. If you're not wearing it and you see somebody beside you wearing it, you ask yourself the question 'will it make a difference?'," British butterflyer Stephen Parry asked.
"But I think the majority of the British team will be wearing the suit and I will too."
French coach Marg Begotti also thinks the suits are part of the mind games.
"I would rather that the swimmers would not wear them. The difference between the times clocked with and without them is not significant," he said.
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