For a long time, swimming spectators in France were fascinated by Laure Manaudou. Recently, they've discovered an amazing muscle-bound phenomenon, Alain Bernard. For the moment, this friendly and lucid lad from Aubagne, near Marseille, is simply the fastest swimmer in the world.
These days, there's a lot of talk about high-tech swimsuits, which can account for precious milliseconds in the pool. The other day, for example, when Laure Manaudou was beaten in her favorite category, we saw her in tears on TV explaining that everything would revert to normal as soon as she could reappear in her new swimsuit.
In the swimsuit manufacturer's logo, the phallic arrowhead is in fact a stylized boomerang, because the Speedo company was born in Australia, a century ago, at Sydney's Bondi Beach.
When I was a kid, we grew up with navy-blue Speedo "swimming costumes" (as we used to say). They weren't yet exactly high-tech, but they had the charm of revealing as much as they concealed. In the following extract from his Unreliable Memoirs, describing his adolescent years in Sydney, Clive James evokes an insalubrious set of tiled swimming pools fed by sea water at Botany Bay:
The water in each pool would be green on the first day, orange on the second and saffron the third. The whole place was one vast urinal. But there were diving boards, sand pits and giggling swarms of girls wearing Speedo swimming costumes. The Speedo was a thin, dark blue cotton one-piece affair whose shoulder straps some of the girls tied together behind with a ribbon so as to tauten the fabric over their pretty bosoms. On a correctly formed pubescent girl a Speedo looked wonderful, even when it was dry. When it was wet, it was an incitement to riot.
I recall vividly the image of teenage nymphs in Speedos, and I agree retrospectively with Clive James when he suggests that, because of the Speedo phenomenon, various potential male swimming champions no doubt spent too much time on dry land:
Falling for — not just perving on, but actually and rackingly falling for — a pretty girl in a Speedo certainly beat any thrills that were being experienced by the poor bastards who were swimming themselves to jelly in the heats and semi-finals. So, at any rate, I supposed. Every few minutes you could hear the spectators roar as they goaded some half-wit onward to evanescent glory. Meanwhile I concentrated on the eternal values of the way a girl's nipples hardened against her will behind their veils of blue cotton...
In their current publicity [display], the Speedo corporation presents its latest fabulous swimsuit product, with an ingeniously sensual name: Fastskin. I wonder if the Scotsman Alexander MacRae — who started out in 1914 by manufacturing underwear, not to mention mosquito nets during World War II — realized what he might be unleashing in the way of watery dreams when he invented Speedo stuff.