Do Speed Suits Really Make You Faster?

The 21st century has witnessed something of an arms race in Olympic Sports. Athletes in speed-focused events have turned to a new technological sector in pursuit of an edge over their opponents—namely, apparel.

It began in 2000 when Cathy Freeman of Australia raised eyebrows with a unique suit at the Sydney Games. With its full-length sleeves and legs, as well as an integrated, skin-tight hood, Nike declared that their "swift suit" technology would bless Freeman with precious tenths of a second. The sports equipment world watched with baited breath, and when Freeman took gold the race was on.

The technology that went into the swift suit had actually evolved over the previous decade during Nike's partnership with Lance Armstrong. Working to cut his aerodynamic resistance in time trial events, Nike innovated new clothing applications to eliminate drag-inducing seams and wrinkles. Their research even went so far as to identify specific fabric textures that would be most advantageous on different sections of the cyclist's body.

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It did not take long for competitors and other sports to investigate the potential value of such developments. Perhaps most sensational was the scientific race that gripped swimming. Speedo had been experimenting with different fabrics in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics in Barcelona and Atlanta, respectively. But in 2000 they took things to a whole new level with the radical idea of covering the entire body in the fabric.

Wearing their "fast skin" brand of suits, Michael Phelps and a host of other athletes pulled down 83 percent of the medals in swimming events. A good chunk of the leftovers went to Australia's Ian Thorpe, who wore an Adidas-manufactured full-body suit. Speedo's biggest competitor, TYR, raced to catch up and ever-more spectacular designs emerged with each subsequent world championship and Olympics.

By 2008, different countries' Olympic committees began complaining that the development and procurement of suits had become so costly and time-intensive as to harm fair competition. There were even accusations that many recent world records were owed more to the garments than the athletes wearing them. The term "technological doping" became frequent in competition. In 2009, FINA passed suit-specific regulations restricting the type of fabrics and length of garments allowed in the pool.

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Meanwhile, developments continued apace in track and field. Nike continued experimenting with variations on full-body suits in 2008 and 2012, but it seems largely that they've taken things about as far as possible. It seemed that things had calmed down. Then came the U.S. speed skating implosion at the 2014 Winter Games.

Once again, the athletes traveled under the auspices of technological superiority, with aerodynamic suits designed by a collaborative effort between Under Armour and Lockheed Martin. It seemed an invincible pairing; the former renowned for its meteoric rise to prominence in sporting apparel and the latter celebrated for producing such technological marvels at the SR-71 and stealth fighter. But the "Mach 39" speed skating suit failed to launch the Americans anywhere near the podium in Sochi. Some of the athletes went so far as to ditch their suits even before the Games were over. Many others blamed the suit for their failure.

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