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Joel Greenshields, from Airdrie, Alta., Joe Bartoch, from London, Ont., Mathieu Bois, from St-Hubert, Que., and Jake Tapp, from Langley, B.C., left to right, show off their new Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit following the men's 400-metre medley at the CN Swimming Trials Olympic selection meet in Montreal on Apr. 6, 2008. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

There's been a revolution in the swimming pool as world records have been falling at a dizzying pace.

It's normal for swimming records to be broken in the run-up to the Olympic games — on average, five records during the year leading to the Games — as athletes get themselves into Olympic form. But by the time the world short-course swimming championships in Manchester, England wrapped up in early April, 37 world records had fallen.

New swimsuit technology was credited with the unprecedented surge in pool performance. Some critics have dubbed the technology as "drugs on a hanger." There's been a huge debate over whether technologically advanced suits give some swimmers an unfair advantage.

What's behind the big surge?

In February, Speedo introduce its LZR Racer, a swimsuit it claimed was its most efficient ever. Early results seem to have backed up that claim. Of the 37 world records to fall through early April, swimmers wore the Speedo LZR Racer for 35 of them.

On April 6, the Canadian men's 400-metre medley relay team knocked almost three seconds off the previous Canadian record at a meet in Montreal. They were outfitted with the bathing suits.

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Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Michael Phelps poses in a Speedo LZR racer swimsuit following a news conference introducing the high technology suit in New York, Feb. 12, 2008. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

"You feel like a race car, it's just unbelievable," said Joe Bartoch, a butterfly specialist, after the race. "It doesn't compare to anything else."

The rest of the swimmers at the meet had to get by with older technology. But Speedo has said the Canadian team will have the new suits before the Olympics.

What makes these suits special?

According to Speedo, there are several factors that turn this swimsuit into a record-breaker:

  • It has bonded seams, not stitched ones, and has low-drag panels in points where water flow is greatest.
  • It compresses swimmers' bodies into a streamlined, smooth shape. 
  • It includes a compression zone around the torso that keeps a corset-like grip on swimmers, helping them hold their form when they tire.
  • The compression is also supposed to reduce muscle oscillation and skin vibration, leading to a more efficient swim.

Speedo claims that, compared to its high-efficiency model from 2007, the LZR Racer is four per cent faster in starts, sprints and turns and has five per cent less drag.

The suit costs around $550.

Sounds like they're designed to give athletes an unfair edge. Why are they being allowed?

FINA — the Federation Internationale de Natation — is the sport's world governing body. It has rules and regulations that dictate what makes a bathing suit legal for international competition.

Under Art. 3.1 b, FINA says swimsuits must be made of "regular flat fabrics" and "no outside applications shall be added." There were those who argued that the low-drag panels Speedo had incorporated into the suits made them illegal.

In a special meeting called at the Manchester meet to consider the new suits, FINA said that the rules do not limit the fabrics used in a bathing suit. FINA said as long as a bathing suit does not improve buoyancy, it's legal.

The Speedo suit may create a feeling of improved buoyancy, but researchers have determined that they do not actually improve buoyancy.

Other companies

FINA's decision has opened the door to other companies to join the higher tech swimsuit revolution.

Of those 37 world records set through April, two of the swimmers were not wearing the new Speedo suit. They were wearing the Powerskin R-Evolution, which is made by Arena — a major swimsuit maker based in Italy.

It's similar to the LZR Racer — it uses bonded seams and low-drag panels in points where water flow is greatest. It also compresses the swimmer's body, giving the swimmer a feeling of greater buoyancy.

Nike, Adidas, Mizuno and Diana — another Italian swimsuit manufacturer — have been developing similar products.

On June 3, FINA approved new bodysuits submitted by Arena, Adidas and Mizuno. Other companies have until June 30 to submit their suits for approval.

The move means Speedo will likely have competition in the pool in Beijing.