When comparing athletes, purists like to standardize the playing fields so that performance is truly a reflection of an individual’s ability. This may help to explain the uproar over the recent development of high-tech swimsuits designed to cut down on air and water resistance. The new body suits are said to shave fractions of a second off a swimmer’s time — an advantage that, in Olympic competitions, can mean the difference between the gold and being left off the podium altogether.

Between February 2008 and July 2009, 135 world records were broken by athletes wearing full-length polyurethane swimsuits, considered to be the most advanced technology available. Almost 95 percent of gold medal winners in Beijing wore the controversial Speedo LZR suit, designed to increase buoyancy and decrease water drag in the pool. Twenty-five swimming world records were broken at those games. In an August 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal, Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, observed that “the actual swimming … has become more about who has the best suit than who is the best swimmer.”

In response to pressure from political bodies, and in light of the dramatic number of world records (43) set at the 2009 World Championships, the governing body of international swimming, the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), ruled that polyurethane and neoprene suits would be banned, starting January 1, 2010. Only textile suits – those composed of 100 percent nylon or polyester – would be permitted for next summer’s games in London.

Unlike the sleek new outfits, textile suits are not designed to increase buoyancy. Adidas, in fact, recently tried to convince FINA that its Hydrofoil suit, favored by British swimmer Jo Jackson, does not give athletes a competitive edge by making the swimmer more buoyant or more aerodynamic.

One major concern with the ban on the new outfits is that the authoritative bodies are regulating an evolving technology without proof that the clothing material is the source of the problem. In a January 2010 ABC News article, Jamie Olsen, communications director at USA Swimming, pointed out there was “a lot of new material entering the market” but not “any procedure to evaluate them scientifically”. As it happened, the apparent link between the introduction of polyurethane suits and the swimmers’ improved performance was enough to convince the IOC, absent any scientific proof, to ban the suits.

The fact that the IOC and FINA chose to allow swimsuits into the competitive arena before a thorough, independent statistical analysis could be performed on their influence on performance demonstrates a weakness in the governing bodies’ ability to regulate without displaying political favortism. The suit technology ban appears to be seeped in bureaucratic rationalization, aimed at appeasing sponsors rather than being made for the good of the sport.

Ironically, the ruling by FINA and the acceptance by the IOC to ban polyurethane suits could backfire in more ways than one. According to USA Today, domestic television ratings during primetime coverage of swimming events involving Michael Phelps in Beijing spiked seven percent above Athens’ 2004 primetime, but then fell sharply when Phelps was not featured. While other dynamics must be considered, it can be concluded that Phelps’ record-breaking performances were a driving force behind the increased viewership.

For broadcasting companies and manufacturers, heightened awareness and media attention translate into advertising dollars and merchandise sales. Caving to political pressure on the suit issue may end up costing the regulating bodies in advertising revenue and general popularity, which, of course ties back into revenue from other sources. Sports purists may look favorably upon FINA’s decision, but the Olympics — a multibillion-dollar business and marketing event — might very well suffer a drop in attendance and revenue as a result of the swimming technology ban.

What do you think?

Chris Haddad is a lifelong Red Sox fan who currently works in finance in San Diego. He is a 2010 graduate of Columbia University, where he received an M.S. in Negotiation & Conflict Resolution. His passion for international sports spans across hockey, soccer and the Olympics. Adding to his diverse sports background, he’s an avid long-distance runner and rock climber. Chris can be reached at cghaddad77(at)gmail.com.