Swimming all the rage, thanks to suit flap

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Source: USA Today, Updated by Mike Lopresti, Gannett

Somewhere out there, boxing and hockey and horse racing and every other sport craving more notice must be turning aquamarine with envy. There's a new master when it comes to attracting attention to itself.

We give you … swimming?

You bet your polyurethane suit.

They're arguing about what they should be wearing. They're trash talking. They've got a rivalry going that's starting to remind you of Michigan and Ohio State in goggles. They set world records at the world championships in Italy like they were on jet skis, and then worrying if they were going too fast.

The pope had a few of them in for a get-together, but the most famous invitee –Michael Phelps— declined, saying he needed to rest for a race. He also probably remembered what can happen when you attend a social function where there'll be cameras.

It's all been a seminar on how one sport can get exposure on a crowded landscape. Here people were, talking about the 100-meter butterfly over the weekend, and this is not even an Olympic year.

That's like talking about your Christmas shopping list in June.

This all came from recent days in Rome, where swimming times became like a fishing limit. If it wasn't a world record, you had to throw it back.

Forty-three world records fell in a week, with some of the old standards shattered so thoroughly, you started wandering if maybe past swimmers had to backstroke through oatmeal.

But no, apparently much of the speed came from these new polyurethane suits, which must be the greatest technological advancement in the swimming pool since chlorine. After hearing about how well they worked – how, in fact, they had alarmed so many that they are to be banned at year's end – I spent the weekend trying to find one myself to give it a test swim.

The idea was to see if the engineering was so good, it could turn a paddle boat into a torpedo. Nothing polyurethane at the sporting goods store, though. Nothing at Wal-Mart, either. I did get a number for a supplier. In Italy.

Just as well, because the editor probably would have wanted art had I squeezed into one, and those pictures would have had to be confiscated faster than dunks on LeBron James.

Phelps, you might have heard, hasn't been swimming high-tech, either, mostly because he stayed with his sponsor's old suit, even if that style was so last year.

Milorad Cavic – the Serbian butterflyer whom Phelps beat in Beijing by the width of a gnat – was quoted as saying maybe Phelps should get a new model before their rematch in Rome. He'd even buy one for Phelps, because he wanted his rival at his fastest.

Would Padraig Harrington offer to buy Tiger Woods a new driver?

They met Saturday in the 100-butterfly in swimming's version of Ali-Frasier. A fired-up Phelps beat Cavic again, and had the angry look of a man who was ready to fight a dragon. Or maybe we should we say the Speedo LZR beat the Arena X-Glide, except that sounds like two wrestlers on cable television.

Whichever, it was an electric moment, and afterward Cavic mentioned how the race was exciting but his quotes had not been presented quite the way he meant.

'The media has a way of taking just one tiny little thing and making it into something that it's completely not,' he said at his press conference. "Especially the American media."

The sport shouldn't mind. This is starting to sound a little like Super Bowl media day.

Now what? The Cavic camp suggested a future match race between the two. Phelps and Cavic have become Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

Alas, the championships are over, and the polyurethane suits will have a going-out-of-business sale soon. The geniuses who designed them ought to be hired by Detroit carmakers.

To think, in non-Olympic years, swimming is normally as visible to the American public as Pluto. But this has been a clinic on how to get headlines. Works even better now than positive steroid tests in baseball.

© Copyright 2007 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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