Secrets of Fast Swimming in the Beijing Olympic Swim Pool Revealed?

Not So Secret at the Beijing Games

Jason Lezak
Jason Lezak in the Speedo LZR Racer Swimsuit. Nick Laham/Getty Images

My daughter and I were chuckling on the way home from morning practice, listening to a radio report on the Olympic swimming pool in Beijing. The angle of the story was that some amazing secrets had been revealed at the 2008 Beijing Olympic swimming pool. Granted, things there are amazing. A beautiful swimming pool with records every day, some by huge chunks of time. But the secrets they "revealed" were not exactly new to the swimming world.

It was all "stuff" that has been around for a long time.

To help swimmers go faster, the first element is the swimmer. They must be fit and have proper technique. As swimmers get faster, things outside their body have an increased impact on speed. That element to overcome is drag; all else being equal, lower drag equates to faster swimming. The main points of the radio report involved reducing the impact of drag on the swimmers, not by altering what the swimmer does, but by altering the swimmer's surroundings.

Performance-aiding Swim Suits
Yes, the new swim suits are helping swimmers go faster, but there are new suits very Olympics. Suits used to be made of wool. In the 20's some racing swimsuits made of silk began to show up. In the 30's rayon stated to appear, then after World War II suits made of nylon hit the market.

Between then and now, many different materials and construction methods have been used to make the best swimsuit possible.

This time around there was some interesting interpretation of the rules by the biggest player on the block, Speedo, and FINA, the governing body, did not say no. These new suits use a plastic-like material to make the swimmer's surface slicker and smoother, more like the "hull" of a boat or the "skin" of a fish (one aim is to hold the layer of water moving over a swimmer against the surface of that swimmer rather than have it break away - trying to keep the boundary layer of water flowing over the swimmer instead of off of the swimmer).

You bet that new swimsuit materials and construction make a swimmer faster, but the idea of using a swimsuit's material to make a swimmer faster is not a new one.

Wave-crushing Lane Ropes (or Lane Lines)
Lane ropes, to diminish and deflect waves, make each lane in the swimming pool less turbulent. This means swimmers do not have to battle waves - theirs or others - which helps them swim faster. Lane lines are not new. They have been around since at least the mid-1960's. They have been improved over time, but they are not new.

Early races had no ropes or dividers between swimmers. Swim races were often held in lakes, rivers, and oceans (like the Beijing 10k swimming marathon - a step back in time). As pools began to be used, a way to keep swimmers from bouncing into each other was needed, and ropes (called lines in the nautical world) began to be tied across the pool to separate each swimmer's lane. Floats were added to keep the rope at the water's surface. In the 60's, Adolph Kiefer patented a "wave-eating" swimming lane rope. Since then, the construction and design of lane lines has moved into the world of physics and fluid dynamics, resulting in the lane lines in use today.

Extra-wide Swimming Pools
Yes, having extra space outside lanes 1 and 8 does help swimmers go faster, but there has been extra side space in pools for many years.

Some pools are built with 10 or more lanes, and sometimes only the center 8 are used for competition. The 2008 Beijing Olympics' National Aquatic Center - the Water Cube - is built that way.

One of the pools we use for practice was built in the early 60's. It has 10 wide lanes plus extra space outside of lane 1 and 10! This pool is 50-meters long by 25-meters wide. Any pool built that way will have plenty of width to help make the pool faster.

Extra-deep Swimming Pools
Waves generally bounce off of what they hit. Walls, floors, and swimmers. Imagine throwing a ball against a wall from a moving car. If the wall is close to the car, the ball bounces back and hits the car. Depending upon the speed of the car and how far away the wall is, at some point the ball bounces back behind the car. Waves do the same thing - if the pool is deep enough, the waves bounce back but the swimmer is gone (waves probably do a lot more, possibly even building with each other to help a swimmer go faster, but the fluid dynamics of that are beyond me, I just know that some coaches believe that is part of the benefit of prolonged underwater streamline and dolphin kicking).

Once a swimming pool gets deeper than about 5-feet, the waves generated by a swimmer that go down and hit the bottom of the pool tend to bounce back up after the swimmer has past. Deeper being faster - not new, but building a pool much over 5-feet deep is not usually done, even for the Olympics, due to extra expense after the games. The higher the volume of water in a pool, the higher the operating expenses, and a 10-lane, 3-meter deep pool holds a lot of water. Deeper also means less use of the pool for other purposes; try teaching a two-year-old how to swim in water 10 feet deep!

{b]What's Next?
What's next? One report says that the designers of the Beijing pool planned to use a special porous wall material that would absorb waves. The report says the idea was dropped due to its cost.

Changing the swimming environment to help swimmers go faster has been around for a long time. Beijing is just the next step in that never-ending thing called progress.

Swim on!


Updated on April 27, 2016