The 2000 Summer Olympic Games were remarkable in a number of ways: softball was included for the first time, the U.S. men’s basketball team almost lost, and swimmers wore futuristic-looking full length bodysuits. They not only made swimmers look like superheroes, but supposedly were responsible for generating superhuman times in the pool.
The science behind the suits has to do with a material modeled on sharkskin. Notoriously fast swimmers, sharks are covered with tiny ridges that reduce drag and allow them to out-swim most prey. Swimsuit manufacturers designed suits using sharkskin technology. The material used to make the suits included shark-like ridges that theoretically would benefit swimmers by minimizing turbulence in the water, which would result in reduced drag as swimmers sliced through the pool. Less drag equals greater speed, so any swimmer wearing the shark suit supposedly had a big advantage.
Not so, say most scientists. Despite the hype, tests have shown that the suits do little if anything to enhance speed. A test conducted at the 2000 US Olympic swimming trials by Dr. Joel Stager of Indiana University concluded that the times were not significantly faster than predicted times based on time trials from the past 25 years. Ridges might help sharks in the water, but humans and sharks swim so differently that shark-skin suits don’t help Olympic hopefuls. So why did so many swimmers wear them at the Olympics? That has to do more with marketing than science.