Swimming’s 2009 World Championships were an eight-day, polyurethane-powered world record binge, guaranteed to leave the sport with a heck of a hangover.
A staggering 43 world records fell at the Foro Italico, including longstanding, some thought indelible, marks set by Australian greats Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett.
Germany’s Paul Biedermann became the face of the controversy when he eclipsed Thorpe’s iconic record in the 400m freestyle, then seized the 200m free world title and world record from superstar Michael Phelps.
The impressive German cheerfully admitted his Arena X-Glide polyurethane suit was worth vital seconds, and despite the grousing he was, after all, just following the rules in place after a series of flip-flops by world swimming’s governing body, FINA.
“Yes, it makes me faster of course but what can I do?” Biedermann said.
The questions couldn’t dim his pleasure in handing Phelps his first major international defeat in four years.
“I was there in Beijing when he won his eight gold medals and it was a great moment for me to live this moment,” Biedermann said. “Now that I’m faster than him I feel absolutely great about this.”
After his eight-gold performance in Beijing, Phelps trimmed it back this season.
He tackled just three individual events, but after the hiccup against Biedermann the American demonstrated he remains swimming’s supreme force.
Eschewing the latest suit technology, Phelps set world records in winning the 100m and 200m butterfly and with three relay wins emerged with five golds to go with his silver.
His 100m fly triumph over Serbian rival Milorad Cavic was an instant classic, Phelps rallying in the final 25m to win in 49.82.
Phelps accounted for two of the five world records set in Rome in the outdated Speedo LZR Racer.
Teammate Ryan Lochte in the 200m medley, Briton Gemma Spofforth in the women’s 100m back and Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry in the women’s 200m back also stuck to the older suit, which started the high-tech revolution last year and will also get the axe in 2010.
Spofforth’s performance was a boost for a British team already looking toward the 2012 Olympics, especially as double Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington was unable to reproduce those results in Rome.
Adlington opted against the new suits, and her coach Bill Furniss seemed confident she’d be challenging come 2012.
“When it comes down to it, we have to just look at the race this summer, not the time on the board,” he said. “We are taking the long-term view to London 2012.”
In the new world order, Germany and China were the big gainers, each nabbing four gold medals.
Zhang Lin in the 800m freestyle broke through for China’s first men’s world swimming title, while women returned to the top of the podium in three events.
As well as Biedermann, Germany boasted Britta Steffen, who lowered three world records in winning the 50m and 100m free.
Cesar Cielo gave Brazil its first and second world championship titles as he became just the third man to complete the 50m and 100m freestyle double.
In both races he downed French favourites — besting 100m free Olympic champion Alain Bernard in the 100m free and world record-holder Frederick Bousquet in the 50m.