Speedo's $600 Swimsuits: Made in America, Bought by China

| Mon Aug. 11, 2008 2:25 PM EDT

lzr-in-water-200-140.jpgBy now, nearly everyone's heard about Michael Phelps's Olympic medal quest. But for those of us who have watched the swimming competitions thus far, there's one competitor you just can't ignore: those black and gray, space-age looking suits that nearly every athlete is wearing.

The wetsuit-style Speedo LZR Racer (here's a pic) is one reason world records continue to be broken in swimming. The science behind the suit includes "ultrasonically welded" seams and panels of drag-reducing fabric tested by NASA. But the main benefit of the suit is how it fits: tightly. So tightly that it acts as a sort of corset, helping swimmers maintain an aqua-dynamic form and supporting abdominal muscles when they tire at the end of the race. Since the suit was introduced in February of 2008, more than 50 world records have been broken by athletes wearing it. American swimmer Ryan Lochte, who won a bronze this week in the individual medley, said wearing the suit makes it feel like you're "swimming downhill." Even Chinese athletes cannot resist the American-made suit, though they covered the Speedo logo with duct tape.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

However, the super-suit has been seen as "tech doping" by some critics, and others say it's not fair to countries who can't afford the suit. After all, the suits (which cost around $600 each) must be thrown out after an athlete has used them 10 times, similar to the way baseballs are discarded after only a few pitches. In the US, Nike was generous enough to allow the athletes it sponsored to wear the suits gratis. But other companies, and countries, may not be as generous, or are effectively handicapped because their regulations do not allow sponsorship deals (This year Japan changed its regulations to allow use of the LZR).

There's also the issue of how much tech help is too much. The swimsuit's polyurethane layers give its users additional buoyancy. Certainly the inordinate number of world records set by those using the suit are proof that it does give competitors that extra tenth or hundredth of a second. What do you think: is the LZR unfair advantage, or just athletes using the best of what's available?

Photos courtesy Speedo.