What’s In The Water?
BEIJING, CHINA - Casual spectators and the worldwide swimming community alike are abuzz about the number of swimming world records being broken at the Beijing Olympics.  And not just broken: shattered.  In a sport where world records are normally broken by tenths, or even hundredths of seconds, records at the Beijing Olympics are being destroyed by full seconds: in the case of the mens 4x100-meter freestyle relay, nearly four full seconds!  Through the first three days of the Beijing Olympics, there have been 10 swimming world records broken in nine events.  Holy Cow!
There are many theories to explain the record-smashing orgy.  Swimming insiders cite the new Speedo LZR Racer suits, which were developed in cooperation with NASA and designed to reduce drag using a light-weight water-repellent polyurethane fabric with laser-bonded seams and the ability to increase oxygen intake by 5%.  Others note the deeper pools, extra lanes, and hi-tech gutters that reduce water turbulence.  Some suggest that increased sponsorship money has allowed athletes to peak at a later age.  There is the inevitable speculation that the sport might have a drug problem.  Perhaps it is a combination of all of these factors.
In the previously cited mens final in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, Sweden also broke the previous world record, and they only managed to come in fifth!  That is to say that 20 athletes all swam at better than world-record pace at the same time!  Are we to believe that all these swimmers from all these different countries are wearing the same brand of rocket-science laser suit?  Are they all the same age, all peaking at the same moment?  Do they all adhere to an identical diet and training regimen?  Are all of them juiced up on 'roids?  Is that the combination of factors that has combined to create this perfect storm of record-breaking excellence?
August 12, 2008
Johnny Weissmuller
3 Gold Medals
Mark Spitz
7 Gold Medals
Michael Phelps
? Gold Medals
Swimsuits Through The Ages
Some might say so, but it seems more likely that it has something to do with the one thing that they all must have in common: the swimming venue; in this case Beijing's "Water Cube."  No doubt the technological advances in pool design to help reduce turbulence has had some effect, but a more obvious way to decrease times across the board is to alter what the athlete is moving through.  Has anybody thought to check the water?
Water is not an element; it is a chemical compound: two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.  Virtually none of the water on our planet is found in this pristine H2O state; water has naturally occurring contaminates in it, like iron and magnesium.  Much of the US drinking supply has trace amounts of fluoride added to it.  Water in swimming pools often has chlorine in the mix.  All these foreign substances minutely alter the dynamic properties of the water.  Other substances have more profound effects.
Salt dissolved in water drastically alters its buoyancy, making it possible for a person to easily float on the surface without treading.  Methane gas leaking from the ocean floor can reduce water buoyancy to a point that a ship cannot stay afloat.  In swimming, however, the key is viscosity.  Simply put, it is easier to swim through water than maple syrup: water is less viscous, in other words thinner.  Perhaps there is a substance — or combination of substances — that can be added to the water to further decrease its viscosity, making it easier to swim through.
Such a…er…"solution" might have the beauty of simplicity, but what diabolical super-villain would hatch such a scheme? What possible reward is to be gained?  Two answers jump to mind: (1) the manufacturers of hi-tech swimwear, and (2) the World Press covering the Olympics.  Both stand to gain piles of money.
Certainly Speedo is getting untold sums of free publicity from the record-smashing Olympic free-for-all, and if Michael “Prime-time” Phelps wins eight gold medals in a Speedo, how much future revenue is that worth to the company?  Like home runs put butts in seats at a baseball game, world records get viewers to turn on their TV sets, and that means huge advertising profits for the media juggernauts.  NBC is already enjoying increased viewership directly attributed to the swimming "gold rush."
The real question is not who will profit, but how easily could it be done?  How does the International Olympic Committee oversee the quality and composition of the water in the swimming pool?  Are there a number of independent agencies testing the water, or is it just one agency that would need to be bribed?  Is a sample of water placed in a vial, then driven across town to a lab in an armored truck guarded by ninjas, or is the task passed off to some gofer in a rust buggy earning diddly-squat? Perhaps they only test chlorine and pH levels with no thought as to what else might be in there.
I am not a rheologist (rheology being the study of viscosity) but it might be time to look one up and ask him: what's in the water?
© 2007, 2008.  The views on this web site are opinions.  We reserve the right to exercise our First Amendment rights while we still have them.