clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Too many world records?

Phelps sets one of 18 world records in 5 daysTen world records in the first three days. Then six more on Wednesday. Thursday only resulted in two world records. In Sydney in 2000 a total of just 14 world records were set. Less than that many were lowered in Athens. The world record surge has become the biggest story of the games so far - that is, other than Michael Phelps, who himself has a new world record to go with each of his five gold medals (he swims for his sixth in just three hours). But is the world record story becoming a world record controversy?

One thing we've learned in modern sports, from MLB home runs to Tour de France titles, is that too much of a good thing is closely followed by suspicion. The front page of Tuesday's New York Times claimed that the new swimsuit technology "muddies the water." The LA Times also raised all the relevant questions:

Is it the new Speedo suits? The deeper pool? Does the sport have a drug problem that no one is talking about? All of the above? People within the worldwide swimming community have different answers. But for the most part, athletes and coaches believe it's just the accelerated progression of the sport.

In other words: welcome to the future - there's no going back. We must remember that the human race doesn't simply advance as athletes, but also as technicians, physiologists, dieticians, swimsuit designers, and - most cynically - chemists. The top five swimmers in every event take a urine test, but there are more drugs than there are drug tests because the business of breaking world records is far more lucrative than the business of catching cheaters and vilifying inspirational heroes.

There is no point claiming that any of the records in Beijing are the direct result of secretive doping, just as there is no point denying that performance-enhancing drugs have for decades been a part of the culture of elite sports, and recently these drugs have become frighteningly sophisticated. As long as the world records are falling we should let the suspicion and questions remain. It's healthy for fans to be skeptical of doping and aware of the influence of sport's technological advances. But that needn't ruin the races.

The more interesting story in the pool is always who touches the wall first. In almost any other sport, the drama is isolated to what unfolds on the day of the competition. World records are seldom discussed in sports like cycling, rowing, diving, gymnastics and the marathon, where weather conditions, the subjectivity of judging and hillier courses make the empirical measurement of a performance secondary to the head-to-head match up.

As the questions continue to mount, the athletes can't help getting a little defensive. Cullen Jones, a member of America's world record-setting 4x100m Freestyle relay team, was asked about the LZR suit in a press conference. His reply: "The suit doesn't get up at 5:30 in the morning. I do."