Phelps Loses Race: Was It Skill or the Suit?

Samson needed his hair for his Herculean strength. Does Michael Phelps need a super-swim suit to continue his mighty swimming feats?

Spectators and swim fans were stunned to see Phelps, the water wunderkind who crushed the competition to win eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, finish a silvery second today at the World Championships in Rome.

The winner of the 400 meter and 200 meter freestyle? Germany's Paul Biedermann, a relative unknown who took fifth place in Beijing.

In Rome, Biedermann raced in the new Arena X-Glide, a new model of polyurethane suit that promotes buoyancy along with a frictionless glide through the water. Phelps raced in his Speedo LZR Racer, the suit that revolutionized competitive swimming and helped shatter the world records in Beijing. Now it's the Arena that's leaving the Speedo in its wake.

So, is it the suit or the swimmer that wins the medals?

The Arena X-Glide helps swimmers float, so all their energy is used to move them forward, not just stay up in the water. The X-Glide also traps more air and is considered faster than the Speedo LZR Racer, the suit Phelps wears from the brand that sponsors him.

Biedermann estimated the X-Glide shaved a full two seconds off his race time.

Phelps, while accepting his loss to Bierdermann graciously, told the New York Times that the high-tech gear has changed the entire sport. "Now it's not swimming. The headlines are always who's wearing what suit."

And this is not just a tempest in a swimming pool. FINA, swimming's governing body, held a news conference hours after Biedermann's victory to announce that these souped-up swimsuits will be banned in 2010.

Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach, told the Times that this ban cannot come soon enough.

"This mess needs to be stopped right now." He added, "We've lost all the history of the sport."

Even Biedermann, the new world champion, seemed anxious to shed the suits and have swimmers compete on their own merits. "The suits make a difference," he told the Associated Press. "I hope there will be a time when I can beat Michael Phelps without these suits. I hope next year. I hope it's really soon."

Despite his loss, Phelps seemed optimistic.

"Hopefully," Phelps told the AP, "next summer we'll be able to really go head-to-head and I'll be in jammers."