Phelps not invincible as FINA moves to level things

This proved true in Rome during the championships held in the Italian capital from July 17 to August 2, when an astonishing 43 world records were broken - 28 more than at the last championships in Melbourne two years ago.

The reason for the record flood was simple: Polyurethane.

Since the material was first introduced in the form of a few panels in the Speedo LZR Racer, which US superstar Michael Phelps wore during his unprecedented haul of eight gold medals at last year's Beijing Olympics, world records have fallen like ripe apples from trees.

A progression in swimsuit design saw the first all-polyurethane swimsuit launched a few months before the start of the world championships. Since then, times have become even easier to break, resulting in the incredible records tumble in Rome.

Phelps, who was one of the few of the top swimmers who did not wear an all-polyurethane costume, lost his air of invincibility, as German Paul Biedermann beat him easily in the 200m freestyle, touching the pad more than a second ahead.

The swimsuit situation became so ridiculous that swimmers were even changing their costume between swims.

Chinese butterfly swimmers Zhao Jing and Gao Chang, for instance, were unhappy with their first swims and both changed to Jaked 01, one of the all-polyurethane suits.

The change obviously worked wonders, as they won gold and bronze respectively, with Zhao getting a world record.

However, both swimmers, like many others, opted to blacken-out the Jaked logo on their swimsuit as their federation is sponsored by a rival company.

Even before the world championship started, FINA realized that they had a problem on their hands - or better said - in their pools.

Unlike previous competitions, where the focus was on swimmers and swimming, most of the interest in Rome was on the swimsuits and the times that could be achieved with - and through - them.

FINA thus set about to level the playing fields, or better said - to level the swimming pools.

In Rome, the FINA executive reacted by confirming a ban on bodysuits from next year and said it would also be introducing strict textile restrictions.

Under the new rules, men are permitted to wear suits that extend from the navel to above the knees, while women's suits must have a bare neck and shoulders and end above the knees.

That, of course, made little difference to the swimmers in Rome, who were breaking world records and setting times that will probably stand for years to come.

US swimmer Ryan Lochte, who won four gold medals in Rome and was later named as the US Swimmer of the Year, ahead of Phelps, described the world championships as the craziest meet in which he had ever competed.

"This is not only the craziest meet, it is also the fastest meet that I have ever been to," he said at the time. "It seems that every race is a world record and is really, really fast."

Phelps agreed with his teammate, saying that there had been some amazing swims.

"The men's 200m freestyle and the women's 400m freestyle really stand out in my mind as being unbelievable records. Federica Pellegrini going under the four minutes for the 400m and Biedermann going 1:42 flat in the 200m is amazing," Phelps said.

"Some records have been pretty unbelievable."

But if anybody thought that the record flood would cease after Rome they were mistaken, as in the five World Cup meets that followed Rome another 37 short course world records were broken.

American Jessica Hardy and South African breaststroke sensation Cameron Van Der Burgh were crowned the Swimming World Cup champions after the final meet in Singapore and won the 100,000 US dollar that went with it.

Some swimmers, like Phelps, used the World Cup as a scene-setter for next season by swimming in costumes that will be allowed under the new rules.

One thing is certain, the next season will bring a change to the sport and - with virtual certainty - an end to the flood of world records.

Lochte, for his part, is looking forward to the new season.

"All these crazy races will change come January first. I think we will then decide who the real swimmers are out there," he said.

"Hopefully, I am there."

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