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Karin Tanabe Headshot

How Modern Technology Ruined My Favorite Spectator Sport

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It's called the Speedo LZR Racer. Credited with dozens of world records, it's not sewn but welded together, was engineered by NASA, produces 38% less hydrodynamic drag than a normal bathing suit, covers from ankle to neck and has all but ruined my favorite spectator sport since I could say "libido": men's swimming.

It's only normal that performance trumps the swimmer's sex appeal and yes, in this case the women are wearing them too, but men's sportswear isn't all dictated by technology: Some players choose bigger because for the young American man, bigger has somehow become better. Larry Bird used to make hoops swoosh in tiny backside-skimming shorts. Now the men competing for gold in Beijing hold court in bloomers. John McEnroe served aces with his hairy thighs exposed, James Blake does it with fabric to his knees. And for those of us who spend more time horizontal on the sand than attempting to shatter world records, knee-grazing overly baggy board shorts are as abundant on the beach as the bikini.

While looking through family albums last Thanksgiving, I came across a photo of my father posing proudly in a giraffe print skintight Speedo. "Mine eyes!" I cried as I covered the picture. "That was the style!" he insisted admiring his youthful physique with pride. Now if you wear a Speedo it means one of four things: you are a competitive swimmer, a card-carrying member of the EU, over sixty and unaware of the changing times, or same-sex oriented.

The same holds true for underwear. While living in Paris I happened to see a lot of very heterosexual French policemen in their intimates--don't ask about the circumstance--and the majority of them were wearing very tight, brightly colored briefs. One even had a pocket for a certain family-planning device right on the front. Surely if you asked a group of young American men if they were sporting boxers, boxer-briefs or briefs, the brief would be a rather underrepresented member of the underpants clan. Women, on the other hand are barely wearing a thing under there--I have seen underwear gracing the pages of the Victoria's Secret catalogue that would serve just as well as an eyepatch. And that Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini that caused such a stir in 1960? It's now being mass-produced by J. Crew.

When did Speedos on the beach and briefs in the bedroom become banished by the young straight American male? "From Here to Eternity" star Burt Lancaster proudly displayed his physique in the tightest shortest bathing suit allowed on screen in 1953, Gordon Scott played Tarzan in a barely-there loin cloth and it's hard to conjure bodybuilding images of Arnold Schwarzenegger without skimpy swim trunks. Today, a young man on an American beach in a Speedo has the shock value of a topless woman.

Maybe it's just a bell curve and things will go skimpy again soon. In 1916, park and beach governing boards declared that men's bathing suits had to have a modest "skirt effect," and before 1937 they could be arrested for indecent exposure if they bared their chests on American beaches. The silver screen in the '50s and '60s changed things, but now we are back to male modesty. Is the renaissance of the skimpy Speedo around the corner? Who knows? For now, on America's beaches and in her bedrooms less is more for women and more is more for men. It just doesn't seem fair.