Imagine the outrage had every sports drug cheat in the past decade worn the logo of their pharmaceutical supplier across their chest as they broke the latest world record or claimed another gold medal.

Yet that’s effectively what happened in swimming for the past 10 years, with the use of a different kind of performance enhancing substance: the very swimsuits the athletes have been racing in.

When Germany’s Britta Steffan smashed the 100 metres freestyle world record in Berlin in June, she did not speak of her excitement or delight at her achievement. She spoke instead about her "hydrofoil" suit.

"This material can destroy the sport," Steffen warned.

It has needed a decade of repeated warnings from top swimmers such as Steffen and their coaches for the aquatics world body, FINA, to take action. In the face of a £10 billion-a-year global swimsuit industry, which provides massive sponsorship for the sport, FINA, was paralysed. The swimmers, their coaches and even the manufacturers were plunged into an eddy of confusion.

Eventually, last summer, FINA was forced to make the decision to ban suits using hi-tech materials from competition with effect from January 1, 2010.

"It's going to be fun next year, when swimming is back to swimming," Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen, said after the ban was announced last July.

Phelps, the winner of a record 14 Olympic gold medals, was speaking shortly after he had lost the final of the 200m freestyle at the World Championships in Rome. It was the American swimmer’s first defeat in a major individual race since 2005. His conqueror, Paul Biedermann of Germany, wore a hi-tech suit. Phelps, as if making a point, did not.

The skin-tight, whole-body suits, costing around £300 each at retail and rarely lasting competitive swimmers more than a couple of months before they snagged and tore, were made of polyurethane or neoprene. They almost gave the swimmer the drag-free skin and buoyancy of a dolphin, but also worked by compressing the muscles, helping to delay the onset of fatigue during races.

The more buoyant a swimmer is, the easier it is for them to travel over - rather than through - the water. Some suit makers even called in NASA scientists to assist with some space-age technology after it was established that their smart fabrics can stimulate the central nervous system and influence heart rate, lung and other vital functions during races.

Phelps was one of a brave few who opted not to wear the go-faster suits in Rome, where the pool bubbled like a boiling cauldron as record after record was broken: 43 world records fell in just eight days.

In the past 12 months, swimmers set more than 140 world records; since 2008, when Speedo launched its market-leading polyurethane suit, more than 250 world records were set. Only Grant Hackett's 1500m freestyle world record of 14min 34.56sec, set in a "normal" pair of fabric trunks in 2001, has survived the hi-tech onslaught.

Britta Steffen’s progression demonstrates exactly how swimming’s very own technological arms race skewed the sport’s emphasis from the efforts of the swimmers to the size of the budgets of the suit manufacturers.

Last June, the 25-year-old (pictured), literally buoyed by the latest suit, touched out in 52.85sec. When the German won the Olympic gold medal in Beijing in August 2008 in an earlier version of the body suit, she was 0.27sec slower - which roughly represents about 50cm, or an arm’s length, in the pool.

Such has been the transformation of the world rankings that what was the men’s 50m freestyle world record that stood in 2008 [21.64sec to Alex Popov of Russia], was not even in the best ever 20 performances a year later.

In 2007, Fred Bousuet, of France, could manage no better than half a second slower than Popov's best. Yet in April last year, clad in a new Jaked1 suit, Bousuet raced down one length of the pool 0.70sec faster than Popov ever did. That represents a whole metre quicker than Popov managed to swim. But could Bousuet really claim the title of "the fastest man in the water", or was it his suit?

The fact is, we may never know. For while the suits have been outlawed, the records achieved by swimmers wearing them still stand, and it seems unlikely that when FINA meets in Bangkok this week it will decide to delete any performances achieved in the now-banned suits.

That could mean that there will be few, if any, world records set when the swimming races are staged in London at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Steven Downes is a sports journalist who has won awards for his writing and investigations, both in print and on television. The co-author, with Duncan Mackay, of the acclaimed athletics book Running Scared, Downes has also edited Athletics Weekly, been swimming correspondent of The Times and for five years was business editor at