Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Greatest Olympian of Them All

At a pizza and beer social with my masters swim team a teammate leaned over and asked, “Do you think Phelps is for real?” Before I could put down the beer and reply my coach answered for me. The abridged version can be paraphrased as ‘We know he’s for real because he’s always been Michael Phelps’. One of the select few destined for greatness in their sport. At this year’s Olympics I watched the performance of another athlete marked for stardom but around which swirls persistent rumours of performance enhancing drugs. Usain Bolt. It does not help quell doubters the facts that Jamaica didn’t have a national anti-doping agency going into Beijing, that several Jamaican sprinters have been caught cheating over the years, or the improbability such a small country could dominate both men’s and women’s sprints. Yet there are other countries who lord over a single sport all out of proportion to their size. New Zealand for example, another island nation, reigns supreme over the world of rugby; the relatively small country of Canada is the perennial favorite in ice hockey; and Brazil sees its football players acknowledged as representing the very best in the world. Jamaica’s national sport is sprinting. Are we surprised Tiger Woods is an American? Wayne Gretzky is a Canadian? Then should we be surprised it was Jamaica, where sprinting is the national sport, which produced Usain Bolt?

Having never seen Bolt run but having read so much about this young prodigy I was very interested to watch him compete. Seeing him race was thrilling. There's little doubt in my mind Bolt is the real deal. His physical size and build, his youth, and that beautiful stride – if a man can do what was done that night without drugs then Usain Bolt surely is that man.

However the topic of this post is not Bolt but Phelps, because his now epic achievement seems to demand consideration as the “greatest of them all”. Not everyone agrees with this assessment. A runner's blog dismissed Phelps’ Beijing triumph by denigrating swimming as an Olympic sport, “... we’d be giving out medals for the 125, 150 and 175”. Clearly a man who hasn’t even swum 100 meters, much less tried doing it butterfly. Yet for me Phelps’ foremost accomplishment is not the number of gold medals, or the number of world records he set, but the fact he managed to do it all so well in nine days.

Contrary to the aforementioned blogger’s belief that an excess of swimming events exists the facts show the number of Olympic medals offered by the two sports is roughly comparable. Track has eleven individual, one combined (pentathlon for the women and the decathlon for the men) and two relay events for each sex; whereas swimming has eleven individual, two combined (the 200 and 400 IM) and three relay events for each. Three of Phelps’ gold medals and world records were in the relays. Likewise relays figure prominently in the great track Olympians’ haul of gold medals. Both Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis, for example, won golds in the 4x100 relay while Paavo Nurmi won two of his five 1924 gold medals in the 3,000m and 8,000m cross country team events. In order for proper comparison of individual talents, however, we should put these aside. That leaves Phelps winning five compared to the three individual gold medals collected by each of our track legends.

In athletics the ultimate in success is considered to be the “double”, or Olympic gold medals in two individual track events. It’s considered almost impossible to compete for more given the strikingly different abilities required to run sprints, middle distance, and the distance events. With distances roughly doubling each time the range required to win three is simply too much. Then too, as the distances go up, the problem of exhaustion rears its head. Both Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis doubled in the 100 and 200 in their respective Olympics. In Beijing we were treated to a rare double double: Usain Bolt in the 100 and 200 and Ethiopia’s twenty three year old Tirunesh Debaba in the women’s 5,000 and 10,000. Owens and Lewis supplemented their doubles with a win in the long jump. Paavo Nurmi did it the hard way by performing a triple, possibly the only Olympic track triple in history, by winning the 1,500, 5,000 and 5,000 cross country (nowadays this is the 3,000 steeplechase). And don’t forget his team event golds were in distances of 3,000 and 8,000 meters! No wonder Nurmi is an Olympic icon.

For a runner to win five golds to match Phelps he or she would have to win, say, the 400, the 400 hurdles, the 800, and the 1,500. That’s four, which leaves the 200 or the 3,000 steeplechase as the obvious remaining options for the fifth. Only the great Michael Johnson has ever doubled the 200 and 400 (normally the two events mark the dividing line between sprints and middle distance respectively) and going in the opposite direction and adding the steeplechase makes a seemingly impossible situation worse. Winning five golds, even by adding the quick 200, still means racing at a world-class pace throughout nearly twenty three minutes of an incredible mish mash of prelims, semis, and finals. Anyone who competes in track will say that's surely impossible. To attempt five by adding the steeplechase would make the situation even worse. No wonder our blogger friend believed any sport which allows five individual gold medals must be inferior to his beloved athletics.

He fails, however, to comprehend the critical input technique contributes towards success in swimming; an attribute which is also crucial to success in gymnastics - the only other remaining Olympic sport blessed with an abundance of multiple gold medalists. A swimmer or gymnast who exhibits an advantage in technique over the world will be able to transfer this advantage to all events, even non-specialties. Runners must do it on physical ability alone. Gymnasts need to depend on strength, flexibility, and technique. Not swimming – swimmers can succeed going either way, but should an individual combine both raw physical strength and stamina with a more efficient technique than the rest then wonderful things will happen. No wonder swimming dominates the multiple gold medal winners in Olympic history. Phelps not only has incredible natural talent but has a clear advantage over the world with his turns. It’s this, combined with his phenomenal ability to recover, which brought him his scintillating achievement. Totaling up all his events Phelps raced nearly thirty three minutes to win his eight gold medals, an incredible display of endurance. Only Nurmi himself has matched that amazing combination of recovery and stamina.¹ Is Phelps the greatest Olympian ever? Personally I’m philosophically opposed to such measurements. I don’t think you can compare athletic performances from different sports and to date no one has been able to arrive at a defendable formula to do so. Besides I believe I’ve demonstrated swimming has a stronger tendency than any other sport to reward dominance with more individual chances at gold medals. But regardless Michael Phelps’ achievement at this year’s Beijing Olympic is epic in its nature. Something indeed for the history books.

¹Nurmi’s ability to recover was legendary too. In order to compete in the 5,000 meter final at the 1924 Paris Olympics he had to line up for the race only twenty six minutes after taking gold in the 1,500.

Update: I have subsequently read that there have been others who've achieved the 200-400 Olympic double. One of these is Frenchwoman Marie-Jose Perec who doubled in the same Atlanta Games as Johnson. I have to plead mea culpa for omitting her feat. I unfortunately share the strong tendency of males everywhere to be blithely unaware of female athletic competitions and their achievements. Even more regrettably I haven't yet been able to identify a possible third who accomplished this trick. Perhaps the deed occurred in the distant past. I'll make the correction when I finally do learn his or her name.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Confessions of a Doubting Thomas

Right now at Beijing's Watercube history's being made. Michael Phelps has swum five of his eight events and won five gold medals setting five world records in the process. He has two more hurdles to overcome given a gold and new world record in the 4x100 medley relay is a virtual lock. The first will be the 200 IM in the form of Ryan Lochte and Laszlo Cseh, and the second in the 100 fly where he has to deal with Ian Crocker. Yes, it may be true Ian Thorpe didn’t believe Phelps had a chance at winning eight golds, but he had plenty of company. Count me among the doubters and I’m a huge fan of Phelps. It just didn’t seem feasible. Michael’s schedule has him swimming seventeen races and that, even with his amazing and well documented ability to recover, is a huge obstacle to overcome. Monday at practice we were divided into relay teams and assigned many of the individual events to allocate between ourselves – all in fact excepting the two distance and the 400 IM and 200 fly events. With a very broad range of swimming ability on our relay I ended up doing the 400 free, the 100 fly, and the 200 back. Five minutes after putting in a less than stellar 400 I was again swimming 100 fly. Not my best event for sure (OK, other than the aforementioned 400 IM and 200 fly it’s my worst) and still tired I ran out of gas midway, limping home more than twenty seconds over my best time. How Phelps can race Olympic finals less than an hour apart and set world records in both is completely beyond me. There’s also all the pressure to perform he has to deal with, pressures most people sitting on their couch aren’t able to comprehend. It has laid low some of the best swimmers in the world. People such as Lochte, Hoff, and Manaudou have all felt its bite these Games. Yet Phelps has cruised through so smoothly I wonder if the rumors he went through U.S. Olympic Trials only partially tapered are true. I’ve often said I’m in considerably more awe of the great track stars than swimming’s best but Michael Phelps is rapidly climbing my sports pantheon. And I hear the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has been receiving complaints they’re showing too much Michael Phelps on their Olympic programing. Are the viewers mad?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Field Trip

This weekend the US Masters Swimming’s 2008 Long Course Championship takes place and I’m going to participate. If you ask me how I feel about it I’d have to say I’m ... ambivalent. Last year I was all signed up and ready to go to this very same meet at The Woodlands in Texas when work obligations intervened and I had to cancel at the last minute (not very well as the following Monday evening, when I was back home sitting at my desk, I received a phone call from my airport shuttle bus wondering where I was). The Woodlands was supposed to be the meet where I’d get out and talk to some of the best masters swimmers in the world on how they train and why, all the while gaining some experience for this year’s Championships. That didn’t happen. Now this year rolls around and I find my situation unchanged. Admittedly stagnation was all but decided when I chose the high mileage route and thus concentrated on stroke technique and aerobic conditioning rather than speed in my training to date. Still it’s a little disconcerting to start out slow and after a year and over 700,000 meters in the pool achieve only very modest improvements in times.

This year’s Championships are being held at the Mt. Hood Aquatic Center in Portland, Oregon (technically Gresham, Oregon but judging from the map I might be able to throw my kitbag into Portland from the pool). The pool is outdoor of course, with all the baggage which goes with that. Still, it does look like a marvelous facility and it should be an enjoyable weekend complete with a couple of socials. I entered into the same six events I did last year but only under duress. The schedule has me swimming the 200 back Friday and the 100 back and 50 free on Sunday; but unfortunately also had me trying to swim the 200 IM, the 100 free, and the 50 backstroke in back-to-back events on Saturday. I looked at substituting a 100 fly or 100 breaststroke for one of my non-backstroke events but neither helped much so I grudgingly plunked myself down wondering how I would plan my Saturday races. It turned out my idea to switch events was moot anyways after checking the necessary qualifying times and realizing I didn’t qualify in either one. Though I just miss breaststroke I’m way off the fly qualifying time of 1:12.86 – impressive there are so many 45-49 year olds who can swim a 100 lcm fly that well. But perhaps Americans are natural butterflyers. Ian at my club was marveling at the fact this year’s U.S. Olympic Trials needed fifteen heats for the men’s 200 fly despite a stupefying fast 2:03.99 qualifying time. Fifteen heats! At our own (Canadian) Olympic Trials we managed to fill four by having a qualifying time a smidge above 2:07 flat. Not that I’m knocking my country’s butterflyers, certainly not with my pathetic excuse of a stroke! Anyways it was with some relief I discovered this past week my sixth event, the 200 IM, had been scratched at the discretion of the meet organizers due to the large number of participants. Anytime you can tell teammates that you really wanted to race the 200 IM but those damned meet organizers wouldn’t allow it is a pretty good day in my books. I’d try for an even better impact with the 400 IM but it would be just my luck they'd have happily waved me in and I’d be stuck either actually attempting the event or scratching and knowing I was coward (sane, but a coward nonetheless).

All in all I’m looking forward to the experience before flying off for another week on the road. I’ve always liked Oregon yet have rarely spent more than a weekend in the state and never in Portland itself. On the other hand at The Woodlands, TX a half dozen of the top masters backstrokers in my age group showed up and this year only one appears on the meet’s psyche sheets. That’s regrettable because it would have been fun to watch a bunch of men my age all clustered close to a minute flat in the 100 back. I can only hope for a couple of good races and at least a little improvement.

Monday, August 04, 2008

No Sense Flogging a Dead Horse

Time to make a tactical withdrawal. For the past month I’ve been struggling to finish off some of my unfinished doping articles before dropping the entire sordid venue and resuming my blog’s original purpose – to be an informal training log for my own, ineffectual swimming. Several times I sat down and spent an hour or so trying to make head way – all to no avail. It was like doing breathing drills for an entire practice. So I’m killing my final Dara Torres piece as well as the article on WADA. In order to salvage something from my efforts, however, I'm going to keep my ethics post around for the day when I can stomach polishing and refining the arguments presented by proponents for legalized doping.

My dedication to pursue the subject was also hobbled by some recent revelations. The Jessica Hardy incident, where a swimmer tested positive at her Olympic Trials for a banned substance, hit me hard. Not that she cheated – I mostly concur with the speculation she ingested the clenbuterol as the result of a tainted supplement – but the fact by miscalculating the timing of their doping test results her federation missed the deadline for naming replacements and deserving individuals were denied their chance to participate in this year's Olympics. Executive Director Chuck Wielgus should have done the proper thing and fallen on his sword. Resignation is the only appropriate response for such a massive failure of office. But, alas, accepting responsibility is not something we see anymore.

Then there is the horrible Nick Fahey, current President of WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). Late last year former French sports minister Jean-Francois Lamour was slotted to replace what must be considered the disappointing oversight of Canadian Dick Pound. The well respected Lamour was reported to be planning implementation of a much more intensive out-of-competition program with less random, more targeted testing when he took over the reins; that is until the United States weighed in and had Fahey appointed instead. No doubt USADA wanted more control over the anti-drug agency after the numerous doping scandals it had recently undergone. Fahey, a former Australian politician, more than adequately demonstrated his incompetence for the post when in his first public statement as head of WADA he made the completely fraudulent claim the Agency was responsible for Marion Jones’ confession. Another unfathomable, counter-intuitive appointment by the Bush/Cheney Administration. This past month he once again put his foot in his mouth when he falsely announced Ricardo Ricco had been caught using a third generation EPO due to the addition of a molecular tag. His statement was later retracted by a WADA spokesman who was reduced to saying that “his words may have been misinterpreted”. No, he just didn’t know what he was talking about. Worse, in a telling recent interview, Fahey came out during this year's Tour de France and stated, “Unless cycling changed how it dealt with the problem, "they are in real trouble" and "they have recognized this … but we haven't reached the point where we can give them the stamp of approval” Apparently he feels aggressively going after the cheats and prosecuting them is the wrong way to go. Thankfully the French Cycling Federation (FFC) has decided to tackle the problem head on, warts and all, in a desperate effort to clean up their sport. I applaud their efforts and indeed this year’s Tour was the closest and most competitive in years. In a similar fashion the International Association of Athletics Federation has just recently taken the extraordinary action of ordering additional tests because of suspicious circumstances and caught virtually the entire Russian women’s middle distance team substituting urine samples. Yes, another painful black eye for the sport. But a necessary and unavoidable step I think towards deterring doping in sport. Nick Fahey, one of those despicable career politicians, would disagree. To him all these positive test results are a public relations disaster better to have been swept under the rug, never to see the light of day. The idea of actually going out and looking for cheats must strike him as organizational suicide.

So that’s it for my foray into performance enhancing doping. But wait ... one last parting shot. After posting several times about the impossibility of Dara Torres not being guilty of doping I have to admit I was depressed at how often the same, disproved arguments continued to be raised in her defense, along with the idea we must assume she isn’t doping without a positive test result in hand. Most of her supporters of course are ignorant about swimming and of elite athletes in general and could be easily discounted – but from the key group I most wanted to hear from, the elite swimmers and coaches themselves, only silence was heard. I could and did explain their reluctance to speak out in terms of their desire to protect the sport, the fear of losing sponsors, and of basic good sportsmanship; but my assertions that I was saying the very same things they were surely saying amongst themselves did place me in a rather uncomfortable position. Facts and logic only go so far.

It was with some relief I could finally see some cracks in that wall of silence when I wrote “Asking All the Wrong Questions”. As time goes on more carefully worded expressions of disavowal have appeared in the community. In a Southern Cal Aquatics Swim Club blog post Janet Evans is quoted saying, “Although I do not consider her the favorite to win this race, we can never count out Torres and her incredible will to win, especially because this race could represent the first and only individual gold medal of her Olympic career.” No one could find fault with that last statement could they? Certainly not.

On Gary Hall Jr.’s Race Club Message Board the man himself (who while very outspoken on the subject of doping in sports and swimming in particular was, until now, very careful never to come out and say anything directly about Dara Torres himself) quotes Mark Spitz as saying, “"I am a big advocate of the way the IOC does its drug testing," he said. "They have a list. If you take something on that list, you get caught. If you don't take anything on that list, you won't get caught. There's just no other way to look at it." So Torres? "She's obviously drug free of what they test for," Spitz said. Ouch! Read Hall's post further and you'll discover after retiring from swimming he's become a lot more forthright about his thoughts on Torres.

At least I go away from this smiling.