High-Tech Swim Suits, Off The Deep End?

Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps lost his first major race since 2005 on Tuesday. While he won an event on Wednesday in world-record time, the loss is factoring into a controversy over high-tech swimming suits. Swimming's governing body said the suits would be outlawed starting in 2010. Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today, talks with Linda Wertheimer about the suits.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On a Thursday morning it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps won another event yesterday in world-record time. The day before, he lost his first major race since 2005. That loss is factoring into a growing controversy over high-tech swimming suits. Swimming's governing body, said this week, that the suits would be outlawed starting in 2010, which is not soon enough for Michael Phelps coach. He says the swimmer should not compete unless the new rules are implemented. USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan has been following this. She's a regular guest on our program and she joins us now. Christine, good morning.

Ms. CHRISTINE BRENNAN (Columnist, USA Today): Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: What is the bigger story here, the fact that Phelps lost or the suits?

Ms. BRENNAN: Well, the return of Michael Phelps is always interesting, but the story of these suits has just exploded, as you said. The international governing body has failed to police its sport, up to this point, and now here we are where it seems, Linda, that swimmers can wear anything but an Evinrude motor and get away with it.

As you said, upstart Paul Biedermann of Germany is the man who beat Phelps the other day in the 200 freestyle. He has this year's fastest suit, the Arena X-Glide. Michael Phelps is so last year with the Speedo LZR Racer.

WERTHEIMER: And he wasn't even wearing a top, right?

Ms. BRENNAN: Exactly. And so after that race and after Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach, had a chance to see what happened that led to - he unleashed a whole bunch of remarks, saying, I'm done with this sport. This sport is in shambles. They better do something or they're going to lose Michael Phelps. We've lost all the history of this sport - on and on and on.

And really quite a tirade that has everyone thinking and wondering what's happening - and not only to the records but also to sportsmanship, grace and class. So, lots going on at the swimming world championships.

WERTHEIMER: Well, what about that question, about if suits are going to be banned in 2010 why not just do it now?

Ms. BRENNAN: Of course you've got the swimmers with these suits right now, so that's logistically a very difficult thing to do. Sponsors, of course, big part of this organization. They don't want to lose the opportunity to have these swimmers in their suits. And, as you know, critics have called it technological doping.

There's a question of what it's going to be made out of next year and how they're going to do this. And I think the big change for people who watch swimming, Linda, will be that where the bodysuits will have to be gone. Now you'll seem men just from waist to knee. That will be their suit. And women from shoulder to knee. And that's, I think, going to be one of the big differences.

WERTHEIMER: This all began, didn't it, last year before the Olympics, when Phelps started out with the Speedo suit? Why didn't they do something then?

Ms. BRENNAN: Good question. Then, in fact, now I think a lot of people are wondering. Because, of course, what this is all about is the record book for a sport. And when you have all these inflated - or deflated numbers, I guess, and swimmers coming out of the blue and setting records that once you take away these swimsuits, which they will do next year, the record book is going to be untouchable, maybe for generations.

WERTHEIMER: Very hard for anybody to actually break one.

Ms. BRENNAN: Exactly. So you'll have a young kid coming up and all of a sudden they can't do that. Keep in mind that Michael Phelps's suit, the LZR Racer last year, Speedo said it can improve swimmers' performances by up to two percent. And one of the other swimmers said I felt I could fly, I could lift a car. So that was the suit last year. Michael Phelps's coach complaining, but his own swimmer wore a similar suit this last year.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Phelps won one individual race and lost one, even with at least half a super suit on. Is it - could we blame his less than perfect performance on the year he's had since Beijing, very quickly, Christine?

Ms. BRENNAN: Yes, I think a little bit. Certainly he took a lot of time off. We know about the infamous bong photo, Linda, and lots of appearances and not much training. So I think that may be part of the reason why he lost that race.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

Ms. BRENNAN: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Christine Brennan is a columnist for USA Today and the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House."

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