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Olympic Games – Swimming and the secret of the moustache

·6-min read
Mark Spitz
Mark Spitz of the USA in action during a butterfly event at the World Swimming Championships in 1982. (Photo Tony Duffy/Allsport)

Seven events, seven gold medals and seven world records. This was Mark Spitz’ historic feat at the Munich Games in 1972 (only beaten 36 years later at the Beijing Games by another legend of the pool, Michael Phelps). While the power of his legs and his exceptional technique were enough to make him a legend of Olympic swimming, there was another factor that set him apart – his moustache.

A unique outcropping of hair amidst the clean-shaven bodies and the miniature trunks he wore at all the Munich events, starting with the final of the 200m butterfly. The result: an exceptional time for the era (2’00’’70) and the first piece of precious metal to adorn his neck. Six more would follow, with as many world records.

This was enough to make the Russian swim team’s coach take the explanation he got from the Californian swimmer the day before competition began very seriously. Scrutinised by all the coaches during his training session, Mark Spitz was surprised when one of them asked: ‘I see you’ve got a moustache. Are you going to shave it off? Aren’t you afraid it will slow you down?’

The Spitz formula

The American had given the head of the Russian delegation something to chew on, as he explained decades later on the International Olympic Committee’s website: ‘I don't know what sparked me to say it, but I smoothed my moustache and said: “The moustache diverts water away from my mouth allowing me to stay much lower, and therefore lighter, during the race. And I’m less likely to swallow water. That enables me to swim faster.”’

The following year, all the members of the Russian men’s team had moustaches. A legend was born.

Fifty years on, however, you don’t see any swimmers sporting the mythical whiskers as they take to the pool. Has the Spitz formula gone out of style, like the 70s, flower crowns and Formica countertops? Could the hydrodynamic virtues of the moustache have been exaggerated by his brilliant success? To find out, let’s ask the experts. Professor Ludovic Seifert works at the Faculty of Sport Sciences at the University of Rouen and coordinates the ambitious NePTUNE project, whose goal is to improve French swimmers’ performance for the Paris Olympics in 2024. He has an excellent understanding of hydrodynamics, which, simply stated, means streamlining the flow of water over a body.

‘It is what mitigates the various sources of resistance to forward motion in water, namely drag, wave and flow resistance,’ he explains.

Sharks, dolphins and Lenny Kravitz

It remains to be seen how the moustache fits into this physical struggle against water. Does it serve as a brake or an accelerator? For Professor Seifert, its role is most certainly marginal: ‘To be honest, I don't think the moustache has any significant impact, either positive or negative,’ he says. ‘Unless the hair is extremely prominent, of course. For example, if you had asked Lenny Kravitz to swim in his heyday, his hair would almost certainly have generated significant drag and resistance in the water. It's no coincidence that all swimmers wear caps or have short hair. In the case of the moustache, we’re talking about small percentages.

Rémi Carmignani, an expert in fluid mechanics at the NePTUNE project, says: ‘I don't know if anyone has ever studied it, but I would tend to think that the effect is negative or zero.

Watch: The remarkable moments when politics upstaged the Olympics

"If it had a positive effect, every swimmer would have one,’ he says, before downplaying its importance in the case of Mark Spitz. ‘He was a sprint swimmer, so I don't think he particularly won his races with his head. If you look, for example, at how the average speeds of the world’s top ten 100m freestyle swimmers have evolved, you can see that the introduction of goggles in 1976 did not have a significant impact.’

Mathias Samson, a research professor in biomechanics at the University of Poitiers, is involved in a major study related to swimming (project D-Day, see box). ‘The pool is a fairly low-viscosity medium, where frictional forces are lower, weighing in at just a few per cent. Therefore, if the moustache were to play any role, it would be quite minimal,’ says the researcher.

He does however - partly in jest - make one (small) allowance: ‘The moustache could have a slight impact on backflow when it runs from the nose to the mouth. In the butterfly event in particular, when emerging from the water, Mark Spitz's moustache could perhaps offer some form of protection above the surface when breathing in. Why not? If he said it, then maybe he believed it.'

His head… and his legs

Unsurprisingly, Samson feels that the American swimmer’s exploits in 1972 were the dawning of a new era. ‘Spitz marks a turning point in the history of swimming. In the 1960s and 1970s, the sport evolved significantly, particularly with the arrival of sports physiology. Spitz was a pioneer of the professional era. He trained hard and worked on his strength every day, at a time when not all swimmers weight-trained that often. It’s no surprise that he was the first to go under 52 seconds in the 100m freestyle. Before the 1968 Olympics, the best times were around 53 seconds. Spitz took more than a second off that time in a single Olympics.’ Moustache or not, that says it all.

However, Rémi Carmigniani believes the issue remains one that should be further examined. ‘Hair is important in swimming, but it’s not easy to determine its impact. We can break it down to one simple physical question: which is better, smooth or rough? In nature, the strategies differ but sometimes give the same result. For example, sharks’ rough skin has hydrodynamic properties, but so does the smooth, greasy skin of dolphins. This dichotomy can be found in certain sports such as rowing, where there are different schools of thought. Some competitors prefer to have the smoothest boat possible, while others put fiberglass on their hull before races to scuff it. So who’s right? The answer is not clear-cut.’ The researcher, who is also a swimmer, has made his choice: ‘Personally, I shave because I feel like I glide better. But maybe that’s just in my head.’

Carmigniani continues: ‘Maybe some people could get used to more hairiness. Like the breaststroke, where you need to “stick” in the water with your legs in order to do the scissor motion properly. In this case, being too sleek can be counterproductive.’