JapanSports

Race for faster swimsuits remains intense in Japan

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japan-news– It is said that as recently as a half-century before the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, there were male athletes who competed naked. While that trend ended, sportswear has continued to evolve.

Four years after Japan made its Olympic debut in the swimming competition at the 1920 Antwerp Games, sporting goods company Mizuno began domestic sales of swimsuits. Silk was used in those days, but since then, new materials and styles have led to continual changes, and the battle to dominate the market continues to this day.

A major turning point occurred in 1964, when the last Tokyo Olympics were held. Nylon, a fabric with low water absorbency, was adopted, increasing mobility. Entering the 1970s, the elasticity of polyurethane drastically improved the fit of swimsuits — essentially becoming the prototype of current swimwear.

Since the 1980s, swimsuit manufacturers have sought ways to reduce water resistance, whether it be by smoothing the fabric’s surface or applying a water-repellent finish. In the 2000s, they took their cues from wildlife, referencing kingfisher feathers and shark skin.

That led to the most famous swimsuit in history — the LZR Racer — which produced a deluge of world records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The frenzy in technological development of high-speed swimsuits became problematic and in response, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) adopted new rules in 2009 that included limiting materials to textiles.

That put swimsuit development into new territory, spurring fresh competition among manufacturers as they tried to find the slightest advantage. “We needed a completely different concept,” said Kenji Otake, a member of the product planning and development team at Mizuno. “It was a series of problems without something clear like how can we make it faster.”

The latest swimsuit models show the clear differences in the respective philosophies of the manufacturers. With its Flat Swim brand, Mizuno aims for a swimsuit that help maintains body posture through less resistance. By using water-repellent fabric, its has reduced the swimsuit’s weight in water by about 20%.

 

Descente Ltd., which handles the Arena brand, pursues high mobility by using stitch-less construction, and has gained the spotlight as the brand worn by such stars as Daiya Seto. “Compared to five years ago, today’s athletes have more developed trunks. Many expressed the opinion that they wanted more freedom of movement,” said a Descente developer.

As of Nov. 4, there are only nine individual events in which the world record set during the high-speed swimsuit era still stands. In a sense, the evolution of swimsuits, along with the swimmers, goes hand in hand with intensified competition.

 

■ Question of fairness

“It was a shock that turned the heavens and earth upside down.”

Such was the way Mizuno’s Otake recalled the first appearance of the LZR Racer, made by British company Speedo International Ltd..

After the LZR Racer, with its polyurethane surface panels, dominated at the Beijing Olympics, a rubber full-body version was introduced.

At the 2009 World Swimming Championships, no less than 43 new world records were set wearing the swimsuits, prompting FINA to take action and impose restrictions.

Under the new rules, the swimsuit material was limited to textiles, and strict numerical curbs were set on thickness and buoyancy. The swimsuits could cover no more than from the shoulder to the knee for women, and between the waist and knee for men.

The question became how to balance the evolution of swimwear and fairness of competition. The problem of high-speed swimsuits left a great challenge. Manufacturers are looking to somehow increase speed by even hundredths of a second within the confines of the new rules.