The governing body of international swimming competition FINA is instituting a ban on the high-tech swimsuits that have been used to set a flurry of new world records.

In the 17 months since the LZR Racer hit the market and spawned a host of imitators, more than 130 world records have fallen, including seven (in eight events) by Michael Phelps during the Beijing Olympics.

Phelps, a 14-time Olympic gold medalist, applauded FINA’s proposal that racing suits be made of permeable materials and that there be limits to how much of a swimmer’s body could be covered. The motion must be approved by the FINA Bureau when it convenes Tuesday.

I see two considerations at play here.  First, they may intend to put asterisks on all of the recent records in order to effectively reinstate older records by swimmers who never had the advantage of the new suits.  For example,

Ian Thorpe’s 2002 world best in the men’s 400 meters freestyle final was thought to be as good as sacred but Germany’s Paul Biedermann swam 3 minutes 40.07 to beat the mark by one hundredth of a second and take gold.

Its hard to argue with this motivation, but it necessitates a quick return to the old suits in order to give current swimmers a chance to set un-asterisked records while still at their peak.   However the ban does not go into effect until 2010.

Don’t confuse this with the second likely motivation which is to put a halt to a technological arms race.  That is also the motivation behind banning performance-enhancing drugs.  The problem with an arms race is that every competitor will be required to arm in order to be competitive and then the ultimate result is the same level playing field but with the extra cost of the arms race.

On the other hand, allowing the arms race avoids having to legislate and litigate detailed regulations.  If we just gave in and allowed performance-enhancers then we would have no drug tests, no doping boards, no scandals.  If we ban the new swimsuits we still have to decide exactly which swimsuits are legal.  And we go back to chest- and leg-hair shaving.  Plastic surgery to streamline the skin?

Swimsuits don’t cause harm like drugs do.  Since the costs are relatively low, there is a legitimate argument for allowing this arms race and avoiding having to navigate a new thicket of rules.