Record-holders laid bare by suits ban
World record-holders are coming up short at the Shanghai world championships, two years after a glut of new marks in Rome, after a ban on high-tech super-suits left swimmers relying on talent alone.
The difference in Shanghai has been stark, with freestyler Paul Biedermann finishing third in the 200m and 400m, four seconds off his world best of 3min 40.07sec in the 400m and nearly three seconds off his 200m mark of 1:42.00.
In the women's 400m it is a similar story with defending champion Federica Pellegrini of Italy retaining her title but nearly three seconds slower than her record time of 3:59.15 set in Rome.
The so-called technological doping episode is a lingering embarrassment for swimming, with many records now looking out of reach after Rome 2009, when polyurethane-clad athletes laying waste to an astonishing 43 world bests.
Not a single long-course record has fallen since the suits – designed to cut drag and support certain muscles, making it easier to swim faster for longer – were outlawed at the start of 2010.
Biedermann, whose 200m and 400m freestyle records were both set in Rome, admits it will be tough to get near the times set in the suits era.
"It's going to be difficult. I think we have to wait and we'll see how the times will compare to the suits two years ago," said the German.
"Yeah, the suits help no matter what end. We're back in jams (shorts) now and that's all that counts. The Olympics will be swum in jams."
The 24-year-old, who stunned US star Michael Phelps with his 200m world record in Rome, is keen to consign the super-suits era to history.
"I think I'm done thinking about suits. It's just about normal swimming again. The Olympics is in jams so why think about suits?" he said.
Speaking ahead of his much-anticipated 200m clash with Biedermann, in which Phelps finished second to US teammate Ryan Lochte, the American downplayed the impact of the suits as a factor at the Shanghai world championships.
"It's going to be fun to swim in the suit or out of the suit," he said.
"For me I hate to lose, so being able to get back in the water with somebody who handed me a pretty big beat-down in 2009 is going to be fun. It's going to be exciting."
TALENT OVER TECHNOLOGY
But as swimmers continue to lag well short of record times, questions will mount over the meaning of records set wearing the super-suits.
Sweden's Sarah Sjoestroem was another world record-breaker in 2009, swimming 56.06 in the women's 100m butterfly but she missed out on a medal in Shanghai, touching more than a second slower in 57.38.
And Ariana Kukors of the United States, who took bronze in the 200m individual medley in 2:09.12, failed to get anywhere near her time of 2:06.15 set in Rome.
Serbia's Milorad Cavic, who set a championships record in Rome, failed to even reach the final of the men's 50m butterfly in Shanghai.
Triple Olympic gold medallist Stephanie Rice, world record-holder in the 400m individual medley, welcomes the fact that swimmers once again have to rely on pure talent rather than technology.
"I think it's great we're all back to the same suits. It's something that can play on the back of your mind, whether it's a suit that you're wearing or not wearing," Australia's Rice said.
Despite the end of the super-suits, introduced by Speedo in 2008 and followed by other manufacturers, both Phelps and teammate Ryan Lochte said it was only a matter of time before records began to tumble.
"Everyone says records are made to be broken and there are a lot of hungry people out there," 14-time Olympic gold medallist Phelps said at a pre-event training camp in Australia.
"There are a lot of people swimming faster than they did in the suit. There are a lot of newer names that are swimming faster."
Swimmers tipped to challenge world records include Lochte in the 200m individual medley and American Rebecca Soni in the 200m breaststroke.
And China's Sun Yang could test Grant Hackett's legendary 1,500m mark, set in the pre-suits age of 2001 after he came within a whisker of breaking the record at last year's Asian Games.