WASHINGTON -- After decades as ardent fans of Grand Prix racing and international swimming competition, we have come to the conclusion that in both, sports engineering has become more important than the competitors. In Grand Prix driving, it is not surprising that engineering has come to overshadow the talent and gallantry of the drivers. Auto races have involved technology since the first race car fired up. Today, however, the heroics of the drivers matter far less than their cars' technology. The unforeseen consequence has been that Grand Prix racing is boring. Could international swimming suffer the same dismal fate?
If you have followed this year's controversy over the use of high-tech swimsuits in the Olympics, you will get our drift. Michael Phelps might eclipse our fellow former Indiana University swimmer Mark Spitz's Olympic record of seven gold medals at a single Olympic Games (though he will have to break the world record in every event, as Mark did). However, even in these Olympics, attention is shifting ever so perceptibly from the greatness of the athletes to the details of their high-tech equipage and the collateral litigation of Speedo, Arena, Adidas and other swimsuit designers.
The companies are contending with each other for various rights and with athletes whom they have contracted to wear their equipment. If the controversies continue, Phelps and his fellow champions are going to be increasingly sharing the limelight with corporate lawyers, business executives and the brainy scientists employed by these companies to improve their products' "ultrasonically bonded seams," "polyurethane layers" and -- who knows -- possibly uranium-235. Sure, this year's Speedo high-tech suit (the LZR Racer) is fast, but give the scientists a few more years and it is eminently conceivable that the next generation of Speedo swimsuits will have gone nuclear.
The sobering fact is that of all sports, swimming is one that needs no high-tech gadgetry. Swimming involves training, stroke mechanics and the character of the athlete. That is what makes the sport so exciting and even noble. At some point, swim coaches and athletes alike are going to have to reclaim the sport from the techies, the fat lawyers and the corporate executives. If they fail, competitive swimming is likely to become a bore.