ROME (AP) — If every record is broken at the world championships by swimmers wearing suits that will soon be illegal, what should we make of all those astonishing numbers?

Should they be accompanied by an asterisk, as one prominent coach suggested? Or should they just be viewed as the products of a different era, a target that will seem out of reach at first but surely will fall someday.

No matter what, these are a world championships like no other.

“A lot of us are joking that this might be the fastest we ever go,” American backstroker Aaron Peirsol said. “We might as well enjoy this year.”

Swimming’s governing body, FINA, finally stepped up Friday to pass a rule banning the sort of high-tech bodysuits that have been credited — or blamed, depending on your perspective – for turning the record book into something that had to be reprinted on an almost weekly basis.

More than 100 world marks fell in 2008. Nearly 30 have already gone down this year. Every record is considered highly vulnerable at this meet, which is the biggest outside of the Olympics and begins Sunday.

“This will be a world championships where numerous, numerous world records are broken,” predicted Michael Scott, Britain’s national performance director.

Not everyone agrees — Michael Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman said “it’s never as many as people think” — but whatever marks are standing after eight days in Rome could provide daunting targets beginning in 2010.

FINA took the drastic step of banning bodysuits altogether for the men, limiting them to so-called “jammers” that only go from the waist to the top of the knees. Women will be able to wear suits that must stop at the shoulders and the top of the knees.

It’s not quite a throwback to a different era — remember those teeny-weeny briefs the men once wore? — but it’s certainly a stunning change for a sport that took its first drastic turn at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when Ian Thorpe showed up wearing a daunting black suit that covered everything but his head, feet and hands.

While most swimmers stayed away from that much coverage, it wasn’t long before the swimsuit manufacturers were in a high-stakes races to see who could come up with a model that provided the best buoyancy, allowing the athletes to glide along the top of the water where they faced less resistance.

The top suits also provided more support around the middle of the body, increasing endurance and allowing some swimmers to get away with less training.

Speedo developed the LZR Racer with help from NASA and blew everyone else away. But shortly after the Olympics, other companies — led by the obscure Italian firm Jaked — came up with a polyurethane model that made the LZR look like a slowpoke.

Now, apparently, it’s all coming to an end.

But not before these world championships.

“Some of these records might not be broken for a long, long time,” Peirsol said.

The prospect of top swimmers suddenly going 2 or 3 seconds slower than their previous times led Mark Schubert, head coach of the U.S. team, to suggest an asterisk be placed on any record from the last 18 months of the bodysuit era, when the manufacturers were coming up with everything short of a motor on the suits.

“That was just an idea, perhaps to have two lists — one list with the new suits, then one list with the old suits,” Schubert said.

In a strange twist, Schubert was one of the LZR’s leading cheerleaders when it was unveiled in February 2008, urging all Americans to wear it, no matter their contractual obligations, if they wanted to have a chance to win gold in Beijing. When the LZR was surpassed by other suits, he changed his position and urged FINA to rein things in.

The governing body was slow to act, and now we’ve got a bunch of records that could truly stand the test of time. Years. Perhaps even decades.

“It will be difficult to eclipse those records if we go back to true swimming, without the rubberized suits,” Schubert said.

But it’s worth noting that East Germany once put up a host of daunting times, which were later revealed to be a fraud because of the Communist country’s massive doping program. No asterisks were placed beside those marks.

“That’s who we should have put an asterisk next to,” said Rowdy Gaines, a three-time Olympic champion from the East German era, who now serves as the top fundraiser for USA Swimming as well as a television commentator. “We didn’t do it then. I think it would be crazy to do it now.”

Eventually, all the tainted East German records were broken. That’s what will eventually happen to all the marks from the bodysuit era, Gaines said, even though a record such as Fred Bousquet’s mark of 20.94 seconds in the 50 free looks especially daunting — and it might be even lower after Rome.

“It will be tough to go 20.9 in a jammer,” American sprinter Cullen Jones said, shaking his head.

While most leading swim nations hailed FINA’s decision, Gaines is one who hates to see the bodysuit go. He worries that it will actually hurt the popularity of the sport, which has increased its ranks at the grassroots level and drawn more publicity of a national scale, largely because of Phelps’ eight gold medals in Beijing and all the hullabaloo over bodysuits.

“I like the suit. I think it’s great for the sport,” he said. “It gets the average person to talk about our sport. It gets people involved in out sport who maybe would not have done so. People love to see fast swimming.”

Gaines points out that other sports have been dramatically altered by technology, everything from auto racing to golf and tennis. He wonders if there’s a young girl out there who set an age-group record in a bodysuit, but will lose interest in the pool when she can’t go as fast. Most troubling, he worries that casual fans will fade away when there’s no longer a frenzy of world records.

“The real baseball fans likes to see a 2-1 game, but the average fans wants to see a 10-8 game,” Gaines said. “That’s what I think is going to hurt our sport. We’re going to go back to being once every four years.”


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