In 2008 Speedo introduced the LZR Racer, a body-length swimsuit lined with stiff polyurethane plastic panels that dramatically reduced drag in the water. Essentially it turned the swimmer into a smooth aerodynamic tube, trapping little pockets of air to improve buoyancy. The technology was introduced in time for the Beijing Olympics, where 23 world records were set by swimmers wearing the LZR.
The impact on the sport was cataclysmic. Athletes who enjoyed the benefits of the new “super suit” described the sensation as like flying. Those who had signed deals with other manufacturers were faced with the choice of breaking their contracts or seeing their careers ruined. And, of course, the records continued to tumble. After Michael Phelps – wearing the LZR – was beaten at the 2009 world championships by the unknown Paul Biederman, wearing a successor suit made entirely of polyurethane – his coach Bob Bowman threatened to pull him out of swimming entirely. In the space of 17 months in 2008 and 2009, a total of 140 world records were set using the LZR. Fifteen still stand. As Bowman put it at the time: “We’ve lost all the history of the sport.”
For some within swimming, the super-suit era remains something of a taboo these days, an embarrassing family secret, a period in the sport’s history that many would prefer to be consigned to oblivion. Yet some also idly wonder what swimming might have looked like had Fina (now World Aquatics) not chosen to ban plastic-based swimsuits, as it did in 2010. What might have happened if an entire sport had basically chosen to legitimise the pursuit of a grotesque advantage through whatever means possible? Perhaps, on reflection, it might have ended up looking a lot like football.
“Lance Armstrong” started trending on Twitter for a while on Thursday morning, in the aftermath of Manchester City’s stunning Champions League triumph against Real Madrid. Which, while funny, doesn’t really work as a comparison for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that City are yet to be found guilty of the 115 Premier League rule breaches of which they are accused, a process that should finally reach its conclusion some time towards the end of the Anthropocene, once City have finally run out of objections over the composition of the hearing panel, the temperature and furniture arrangement of the adjudication room, the colour of the flowers, and so on.
But even then the Armstrong parallel feels wilfully obtuse. Pumping your body full of EPO and human growth hormone in a sport where the correlation between power output and success is almost a straight line is not really the same thing as false accounting in a complex ball sport. By the same token, everyone agrees that doping should be banned. Not everyone agrees that football club owners should be restricted in the amount they are allowed to spend. The more compelling analogy, for me, is with swimming’s super-suit era: a period of high drama but also high farce, and crucially defined not by a single high-profile case but a whole culture of lawless free‑for‑all, much of it residing in the endless grey area between what is legal and what is not.
Because this is the slightly inconvenient part for those seeking to make a grisly exemplar of City: this is a sport where everyone is essentially trying to cheat all the time. Deceit and duplicity and bad intentions are built into virtually every facet of football, running through it like turds in a river. There’s the small stuff, like diving and time-wasting and trying to claim a corner you know you didn’t win. There’s the medium‑sized stuff, like tapping-up, or trying to get referees changed. And then there is the elite-tier cheating where you try to pervert the very fundamentals of the game itself, either by distorting the competitive ecosystem through obscene wealth or rounding up your mates and deciding to start a fancy new Super League. It’s a sliding scale, to be sure. But to a greater or lesser extent, everyone is engaged in it.
The important point is that the physical existence of actual rules is to a large extent irrelevant. Football’s regulatory framework has never been remotely fit for purpose, which is one of the reasons a strong independent regulator is so urgently required. The key issue here is one of trust: the extent to which we as fans can trust what we’re watching. Barcelona and Real Madrid during the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo eras were funded by hundreds of millions in illegal state subsidies, mainly tax breaks and soft loans. The money that bankrolled Juventus’s era of dominance was seemingly conjured out of thin air, based on false player values. The regimes that fund City, Newcastle, Paris Saint‑Germain and perhaps Manchester United next are autocracies who believe less in the rule of law than the rule of getting whatever they want.
Perhaps one day, like the super-suit world records, this whole age of football will require an asterisk. This title was won by manipulating referees. This Champions League was won by spending money you said didn’t exist. This Ballon d’Or belongs to a player whose club shouldn’t have been able to afford him. Perhaps one day we will look back on the reckless carbon era of football with a certain sense of shame, a weird experiment never to be repeated. For now, we continue to glide bewitchingly through our frictionless, padded, polyurethane-enhanced present.