The battle between the haves and the have-nots has reached a fever pitch in the buildup to the NCAA Division I Men's Championship Swim Meet, which opens Thursday in College Station, Texas. Those teams with it face far better odds of winning and setting new records than those without it.
Practice? Supplements? Training? Luck? Nah, nothing like that. It's the $550 Speedo LZR, the same swimsuit that caused such a ruckus at the Olympics last year. Some 91 percent of gold medalists in Beijing wore the suit. So you can imagine the chase for the gold the all-body suit is causing as it filters into the NCAA.
Critics and fans alike point to the numbers. Swimmers have set 82 world records wearing the Speedo LZR since it hit the scene last year. That compares to 15 in the past seven Olympic years. That sums it up from a competitive standpoint, but my objection to the Speedo has always come from a more personal perspective.
The suit covers swimmers from their ankles to their shoulders. That means no more rippled torsos to enjoy while watching the sport. The eye candy allure of swimming competitions has dropped considerably. It's a shallow argument, I know, but one I'm comfortable making as a sports fan who is gay.
Nevertheless, the suit has caused an arms race, so to speak, that is reaching its frenzy in College Station this weekend.
A controversial about-face by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in September has turned college swimming upside down this season. Programs that never spent more than a few hundred dollars to outfit their athletes had to beg, borrow and scrounge to come up with nearly $20,000 for a season's supply of the new generation of superfast, superexpensive swimsuits like the ones Michael Phelps wore in the Beijing Olympics.
In total, swimmers have set 82 world records wearing the Speedo LZR since its introduction last year, compared with an average of 15 in the past seven Olympic years. These results have caused a frenzy in a sport that has always seemed largely immune from the influence of technology.
"It's like having one pole-vaulter using a fiberglass pole and another using a wooden pole," said Phil Whitten, executive director of the College Swim Coaches Association. "It's an absolute mess."
FINA is digging in, announcing that it will investigate the suit and whether it enhances performance. Oddly enough, as college teams race to find the money to pay for outfitting their entire roster with the suits, the Speedo apparently falls apart after a few swims.
Back to eye candy. Coaches are also complaining that the LZR and others like it give flabby swimmers an advantage.
They make swimmers more buoyant and have an ultra-smooth exterior that glides through the water far more easily than skin. Most troubling to coaches, the suits seem to help the flabby, lazier swimmers the most, because their fat gets compressed but remains more buoyant than dense muscle, allowing them to float higher in the water and swim faster.
I'm not sure I've ever seen a flabby college (or Olympic) swimmer. Well, at least flabby by normal human standards. Maybe they are just gay fat. But shouldn't they get the suit, too?
Matt Hennie blogs on Atlanta's gay sports scene (and other stuff) at Project Q Atlanta.