ROME – Michael Phelps sure looked out of place.
After bending over to accept a medal he wanted no part of, then listening to another swimmer’s national anthem, Phelps tried to make his getaway. Not so fast – there were still pictures to take.
So he straggled back to the top step of the awards stand, the place he knows so well. This time, it was already occupied. Phelps stood off to the side while Paul Biedermann was the center of attention and photographers snapped away.
The unheralded German pulled off one of swimming’s greatest upsets when he beat Phelps in the 200-meter freestyle at the world championships Tuesday, also snatching his world record.
But no one thought this was a fair fight. In yet another twist to the never-ending saga over high-tech swimsuits, Biedermann acknowledged that his polyurethane version gave him an edge over Phelps, who stuck with his once-revolutionary LZR Racer. Phelps’ coach even threatened to pull his star from future international meets unless the governing body acts with more urgency to get rid of suits that have rendered the record book obsolete.
“The suits make a difference,” Biedermann said. “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.”
Phelps can’t wait.
“It’s going to be fun next year, when swimming is back to swimming,” he said.
Phelps took his first major individual loss in four years, doled out by a swimmer barely known outside his country. In the space of three days, the 22-year-old German wiped Ian Thorpe’s name out of the record book in the 400 free, then he took down the most successful Olympian with a time of 1 minute, 42.00 seconds, nearly a second faster than Phelps’ 1:42.96 at Beijing.
“Biedermann just took off,” Phelps said. “He took it to a new level in that race.”
But how much was the man? How much was the suit?
Biedermann wore an Arena X-Glide, which has taken its place alongside the Jaked suit as the fastest thing on water. Yes, even faster than Speedo’s once-heralded suit, which battered the record book in 2008 but was surpassed by attire that’s even more buoyant, allowing the swimmer to glide along the top of the water with less resistance.
Shortly before the race, FINA confirmed that a ban on bodysuits will go into effect in May, making this the last major competition in which such suits are allowed.
Not soon enough for Phelps’ coach.
“We’ve lost all the history of the sport. Does a 10-year-old boy in Baltimore want to break Paul Biedermann’s record?” Bob Bowman said after the race. “The sport is in shambles right now and they better do something or they’re going to lose their guy who fills these suits.”
“It’s not my problem,” Biedermann said. “It’s the problem of FINA. They should handle it really fast.”