Since the full-bldy LZR swimsuits that won 98% of the medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing were banned in 2010, I assumed swimming records would not fall as easily this time around.
It turns out, though, that Speedo found new ways to continue to help swimmers cut through the pool. They developed a new fabric called Fastskin-3, along with new caps and goggles, to help Olympians minimize turbulence and drag through the water.
In the end, Fastskin is Spanx on steroids, compressing a body three times more than the LZR. The suit constricts the stomach the least and the chest, buttocks and hips the most, attempting to mold swimmers into an unblemished tube.
Speedo has applied for nine patents for the Fastskin-3. The company says only six machines in the world are capable of producing the compression fabric; it owns all of them.
So this most recent batch of Olympic swimmers may not have been at much of a disadvantage at all versus the swimmers who competed in Beijing, if at all. Many swimmers, including Phelps and Lochte and Adlington, posted recent career bests in the new system leading up to London, and more than a few records did topple.
I would love to see a lab-tested measurement of what % of the time improvement an athlete gains from advances in their equipment and what % comes from their environment. How much of the improvement is advances in the human body (nutrition, training, genetics), versus human R&D (equipment) or environmental tuning (facilities)? As noted in the WSJ, this Olympics committee did everything possible to tune every facility to be as conducive to breaking records as possible. Viewed strictly as a for-profit TV spectacle, that's not surprising. Records toppling makes for good television, and an Olympic games in which very few or no records fell would be a disappointment in some ways, neutral environments be damned.
So the next time you see an Olympic record being measured down to the hundredths of a second, know that the margin of error from factors exogenous to the athlete likely account for differences that render such precision overkill.