Friday, August 29, 2008

Bolt vs. Phelps

Now that the Olympics are over and the dust has settled, it's time for me to look back and give my own synopsis of the proceedings. One of the biggest stars of the Beijing Games was, as you probably guessed, Michael Phelps (and his mom, but do not get me started on that one). He did some great stuff, I mean, 8 gold medals is absolutely amazing and obviously setting 7 world records in one competition is nothing to be forgotten soon. However, there's a line, and when NBC started to advertise their new DVD touting Michael Phelps as the “Greatest Olympian of All Time,” they crossed it. (P.S. Don't get me started on NBC and how they single-handedly destroyed the Olympics for this whole country either). I mean, I don't even consider Phelps' performance as the greatest performance of this Olympics. Whoa, put down the pitchfork for a sec, I'll explain. I know it might be hard to fathom at first. “How can that be possible, he was on TV so much??” you say. We all know that NBC did so well at covering everything this Olympics but surprisingly there were a couple [billion] things they missed, so let me fill you in. Let us turn to the marquee sport of the Olympics, Track and Field. Surprised? Shouldn't be, it's where the greatest performances of the Beijing Games occurred. Lemme introduce a kid named Usain Bolt. After the waves calmed at the Water Cube and most the nation was worshiping Phelps for his “inhuman” speed and endurance, other sports commenced and most forgot to pay attention. A kid from Jamaica named Usain Bolt won 3 gold medals and set 3 world records. But how on Earth can I claim that Bolt > Phelps?? How is is 3 bigger than 8? [looks confused while holding hands mimicking a scale] Most of the comparisons across the sports are done by using raw numbers, like, 8 golds vs. 3, which turns out, is completely flawed. Sports also differ in the facility that one can earn gold medals.

Let me illustrate the difference between swimming and track. Phelps was able to win 8 golds; 5 individual events and 3 relays. The distances covered in each event were very similar which allow for massive hauls in the medal count. For this exact reason the old medal count record holder was also a swimmer: Mark Spitz. For a runner, it's seriously next to impossible to approach those kind of numbers. Let's figure what range Bolt would have to have to compete just on sheer numbers. He'd have to win the 100 m, 200 m, 400 m, 4x100 m, 4x400 m, 800 m, 1500 m, and 3000m Steeple. It's difficult for the layman to understand the massive difference there is between a steeplechase runner and a 100m runner, but it's basically never been done even at a high school level. Now, take that to a world-class level, it's impossible.

Here's a quote to help everyone understand that I'm not alone on this one:

"Swimming events take place in a 50-metre pool. All events are multiples of 50. Swimmers traverse the distances in different styles: going forward in freestyle, in breaststrokes, like a butterfly, or going backwards in a backstroke, and a combination (medley) of all the four. There are several relays for each of these styles and medleys, over varying distances. The track and field equivalents of the swimming events are: running forward, running backwards, running sideways and a combination thereof within a 50-metre track. You get the picture! The point is, swimming and track and field are in different leagues."

-The Daily Star

Hardly getting into the biomechanics and physiolgy of swimming vs. running, suffice it to say that setting an Olympic record, then coming back 40 min later and setting a WR is I-M-P-O-S-S-I-B-L-E in track, the pounding the body takes in running is many many times more intense. That's why swimmers (and cyclists) can practice for 6 hours a day and runners only 1-2.

Ok, world records. Sounds pretty important, right? What if there were more world-record breaking performances than gold medals? Kinda looses it's significance. That's swimming for ya. Did you watch the 4x100m relay when Lezak pwnd the big-mouthed French team for gold? Great race right? But did you see there were like 5 or 6 teams also under the world-record? A new WR is essentially expected in every race. Track completely differs from swimming in this regard. The 200m WR was set 12 years ago by the legendary Micheal Johnson. Nobody had approached that record since, in fact nobody had got within three-tenths of a second which is huge in a 20 second race. That's huge. The record was deemed to be virtually unbreakable. I wish I had the figures, but the 100m WR progression has crept along over the last few decades where breaking it by .02 is considered a “shattered” record. The margins of victory of .01 of a second are commonplace (sorry Phelps, I'm kinda referring to your magnificent .01 sec butterfly victory). Bolt annihilated the 100m WR, but he jogged in. He jogged it in. It was the most destructive 100m victory this world has ever seen. Nearly everybody agrees that he could have been under 9.6. I can't even begin to help you understand how extraterrestrial that would have been. I could go on, but suffice it to say that track WRs are much more difficult and rare than swimming records, several times over. My buddy from The Daily Star agrees, and so do these stats:

Over the last 30 years, the 50m Freestyle world record has dropped over 2.5 seconds. Over the same period, the 100m WR has dropped only about .3 seconds.

Participation in a sport significantly increases the talent pool in the sport and therefore creates more depth in talent and quality. Track and Field is one of the most popular sports in the world, with some of the highest participation rates. In the US, the basketball/football/baseball mecca of the world, more high school kids compete in track than any other sport. Like I said, that alone makes it so much more competitive. Swimming is big relative to obscure sports like badminton but still can't compare to the sheer number of track and field. Smaller participation allow for some prodigy like Phelps to come along and dominate because the field of athletes just isn't nearly as competitive. Many agree that swimming is like distance running was back in the 70's, if you were good, you could go around winning everything merely because there was no competition. In track, winning both the 100m and 200m in one Olympics has only happened a handful of times, but not one of those times did any of them include a WR. Bolt set 3. Correction: Bolt smashed 3.

Now don't get me wrong, Michael Phelps is an amazing athlete, possibly one of the best to ever live, but Bolt has has him beat. But because of the ignorance of network television who can't figure that Olympic greatness must be measured beyond adding 1 + 1, (and almost comically because of this, the resultant ignorance of the general public) he hasn't been recognized for the substance of his accomplishments.

Oh, and Bolt is only 22, and he's not retiring.

I won't even start with the man, Bekele. Let's leave that for another day.


  1. Big up and respect! Great synthesis and analysis.

  2. I would love to sit here and write something profound to counter your point, but there is no way. I agree with what you said. This is something that should be sent in to Sports Illustrated or a running magazine. This is very worthy of publication.

    Here is one argument for Michael Phelps (not that I agree with it, but I'll just put it out there): We are a nation that likes "reality" TV. Phelps: Single mom, dad left them (tug at the heart strings), and he's now the "greatest" there ever was. (sounds of cash drawers chiming) And that's when NBC and the media saw a way to make a buck off it. I got my whole life's savings on a bet that Phelps won't see a dime of those DVDs. But good media is good media.

  3. I agree, NBC didn't do a very good job at these olympics... Great job explaining why Phelps wasn't the best at these games.

  4. you make me laught nate. :) Still think you should be a sports writer.

  5. Wow! So I get this facebook message from Heidi saying she has a blog. Little did I know I would not only get sucked into their blog, but yours too.

    Interesting thoughts and views. I loved the pool and the Track. Both I thought we insanely good. I am absolutely amazed and inspired by both Bolt and Phelps.

    I agree with Heather. You should be a sports writer...You had me captivated from the first word of your first post and the last word of your last post!

  6. I think it is pretty suspicious for a guy to go from being a 10.02 guy to world record in one year.