In 1922, Johnny Weissmuller who would go on to fame portraying Tarzan in the movies, stunned the sporting world by swimming the 100 metre freestyle in under one minute with a time of 58.6 seconds. Nobody cared or noted what kind of swimsuit he wore. It was simple cotton. Quite a contrast with the high-tech suit worn by American Caeleb Dressel who took the gold medal in the event at the Tokyo Olympics with a time of 47.02 seconds!
Of course, in the intervening 100 years, training methods have changed, although Weissmuller did place emphasis on lifestyle. He became an enthusiastic follower of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s vegetarian diets, enemas and exercise. Dressel is not a vegetarian, loves meatloaf and starts his day with a high-carb breakfast. The real difference is in the training. Dressel trains on a rowing machine and a stationary bike with online interactive personal training. But his swimsuit unquestionably also makes a difference. Certainly not 10 seconds worth, but when today’s top swimmers are separated by fractions of a second, the fabric and style of the swimsuit takes on importance.
Any discussion of swimsuit technology has to start with the wonders of spandex, a synthetic material that stretches and magically rebounds to its original shape like rubber. But unlike rubber it can be produced in the form of fibres that can be woven into a fabric. Spandex, a clever anagram of “expands,” was developed by DuPont chemist Joseph Shivers working under the direction of William Charch, who had become famous for inventing waterproof cellophane by coating the material with a layer of nitrocellulose. Revolutionizing sportswear was not Shivers’s original intent. At the time, girdles made with rubber were a common part of women’s attire, but rubber was in short supply and the challenge was to develop a synthetic material that could be used in girdles as a replacement.
DuPont already had introduced polymers such as nylon and polyester to the marketplace and had significant expertise in synthesizing giant molecules. Shivers produced spandex by synthesizing a “block-copolymer” with alternating elastic and rigid fragments. There were also branches that could be used to “cross-link” the molecules, conferring strength. The result of combining spandex with cotton, linen, nylon or wool resulted in a material that was stretchy and comfortable to wear. Since a number of companies began to produce such fabrics, DuPont patented the name “Lycra” for its version of spandex.
In 1973, East German swimmers sported spandex suits for the first time and shattered records. That may have had more to do with their use of steroids, but it got the competitive gears turning at Speedo. The company had been established in 1928 as a science-based swimsuit manufacturer, replacing cotton with silk in its “Racerback” suit to cut down on drag. Now, spurred by the success of the East Germans, Speedo turned to coating spandex with Teflon and contoured the surface to have tiny V-shaped ridges like on the skin of sharks that supposedly reduce turbulence.
By 2000, this had morphed into a full-body suit that further reduced drag since water was found to adhere more strongly to skin than to the swimsuit material. In 2008, strategically placed polyurethane panels replaced Teflon, and the fabric, now composed of Lycra, nylon and polyurethane, was found to trap tiny air pockets that buoyed the swimmer. The advantage here is that air resistance is less than water resistance. Some companies tried suits of pure polyurethane since the material traps air very effectively. With each of these “breakthroughs,” times dropped and prices increased. A high-tech suit could now cost over $500.
The term “technological doping” invaded our vocabulary and in 2009, the international governing body of swimming (FINA) decided to equalize the field and banned all full-body swimsuits as well as any panels not made of woven fabric. That didn’t stop the race for improved suits even though they were now restricted in the amount of body surface they could cover. For the Tokyo Olympics, Speedo introduced yet another innovative suit that was constructed of three layers of different fabrics, the identity of which are propriety information.
Spandex is not restricted to swimwear. Skiers reduce air drag by squeezing into sleek spandex suits as do cyclists. Women’s undergarments still make up a large portion of the business, and spandex has even made it into leggings and jeans that squeeze the body in just the right places to hide undesired bulges. As far as the swimming innovation goes, maybe competitors will just spray their naked body with some sort of polymer to eliminate any swimsuit drag! After all, the original Olympians competed in the nude.
Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.
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