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.


Anonymous said...

Hello, I've been enjoying reading your blog here, in the Netherlands. Just to add my 2 cents, IMHO Vladimar Salnikov is the greatest swimmer of all time. He set 12 world records in the 400, 800 and the grueling 1500 free, and was the first person recorded in history to break 8 minutes for the 800 free, and 15 minutes for the 1500 free (and all this without the aid of a fast suit, I might add). Had it not been for the USSR boycotting the Olympics in '84, he would have won gold medals in 3 consecutive Olympics in the 1500 free (he won in 1980 and 1988), and would have been the only man to win individual gold medals in swimming, in three consecutive Games (Dawn Frasier won the 100 free titles in '56, '60 and '64, and Kristina Egerszegi won the 200 back in '88, '92 and '96).

What makes Salnikov so special though, is that by the 1988 Games, the first "full", non-boycotted Olympics in his career, he appeared washed-up. He'd failed to reach the finals of the '87 European Championships, and the Soviet coaches didn't want him on their Olympic team. But a high-ranking official insisted that the 28-year-old swimmer go.

Contrary to what was expected of him, not only did he make the final of the 1500 free, but he was fast enough to beat the guy who came in second by a full body length and take the gold (although he swam 6 seconds slower than his '83 word record, which would survive for 18 years).

Later that night, Salnikov set off a tribute that explains why David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian describes the Games as a populist United Nations. Salnikov stopped for a meal in the Olympic village cafeteria, where almost 300 athletes and coaches representing a wide variety of nations and sports were eating. When word spread that he walked in, according to Wallechinksy's book, THE COMPLETE BOOK OF THE OLYMPICS, they all put their food down, rose and gave him a standing ovation.

How great is that?

As far as naming the greatest Olympian goes, I'd nominate either the British rower, Sir Steve Redgrave, or German kayaker, Birgit Fischer who are the only 2 people to have won gold medals at 5 consecutive Games.

Groetjes from the Hague,

Scott said...

Well thank you Freckle for those kind words. May I add that, as someone from the language challenged North American continent, if you’re a native born Dutchman then I’m on bended knee to your linguistic prowess. Interesting you bring up Salnikov because he too ranks very high on my list of the greatest swimmers of all time. At this level of quality though I feel the discussion is purely academic – I’m not going to plunk down on anyone’s name (even Michael Phelps) as the greatest Olympian swimmer of them all, much less overall Olympian. As you point out there are too many differences in their circumstances to allow for direct comparison. On a side note my club in backwater New Westminster, British Columbia had for a couple of years (2003-2006) on its masters team one Vladimir Fomine, a former Russian national team member who actually trained along side of Salnikov. It’s a small world isn’t it? Yes he was very fast.

You also brought up a couple of individuals whose names commonly come up whenever the topic of the greatest Olympian is raised – Steve Redgrave and Birgit Fischer. I, however, have my doubts about Steve Redgrave. I’m certainly not arguing he isn’t a phenomenal athlete: he had to be in order to win a gold medal in each of five Olympics, in three different boat types no less As someone who is familiar with the sport of rowing (I attended the noted rowing high school Brentwood College) I understand the exceptional nature of his achievement. But rowing is an elitist sport contested by relatively few nations. To lend support to this position I merely have to point out that Canada has been relatively successful in international rowing over the years – need I say more? Birgit Fischer’s kayaking accomplishments, again as marvelous as it is, is in a sport even more obscure. Compared to athletics (the titan of Olympic sports) or even swimming (one of the giants) these sports are respectively on the outside and off the map. Redgrave I’ll consider as an outside contender for the title, but Fischer is off my list. No disrespect intended.

P.S. I heard that Usain Bolt is considering adding the 400 meters to his repertoire. As a 200 meter man the 400 could well be in his range. A triple in London would move him right up with legendary Paavo Nurmi. Could he add the 110 hurdle too? He’s got the speed and at 196 cms as the height. In my mind a quadruple would make him the hands down winner of the world’s greatest Olympian ever. But now I’m just dreaming.

Joe said...

You are absolutely right that it is difficult to compare greatness between sports. Phelps and Bolt are both amazing athletes and both great Olympians. If I had to choose, I'd say that Phelps' achievements at Beijing were greater, based on quantity.

That said, I was WAY more electrified by watching Usain Bolt. It's not just that he's the WAY he won. When he won the 100, he started jogging with about 30 meters left and raised his arms in victory while he turned his head from side to side to take it all in and savor the moment. I've never seen anything quite like that, especially in such a short race.

Sure, Phelps crushed the opposition in most of his individual events but did he have enough of a lead to coast into the wall like he was swimming a warm down? That would have been a sight to see!

jc said...

Scott -- Here's the case for Bolt being clean. First, he doesn't have the convex trapezius muscle that so many of the 'roiders get as a "side effect" of their doping (it doesn't help them run fast, it just gets that way when you juice). Likewise, with a lot of the sprinters, as they get into the set position, you can see every last striation in their massive deltoids; with Bolt, his upper arms look positively skinny by comparison. Second, the "Phelps has always been Phelps" argument: Bolt was the youngest World Junior Champion in history, at age 15 (in track, you can compete in that category up till age 19), in an event -- the sprints -- where people generally blossom later. At no point in his career did he have a sudden, suspicious improvement. And third, his form is very loose-jointed and limber. Watch the tape of him winning the 200: he has a rollicking, almost side to side gait, and shows no signs of dying at the end (in fact, after both of his victories, he ran another 150 meters or so afterwards at almost full speed). Compare that to an obvious juicer like Shawn Crawford (who ran for Trevor Graham, case closed). Crawford has very tight running form and always looks as if he is about to die coming down the homestretch.

I thought Bolt was a breath of fresh air, btw, I enjoyed his spontaneous and genuine displays of joy afterwards, and for me he was the most thrilling athlete to watch at these Games (more so than Phelps because Phelps was merely predictably great). And I was utterly disgusted when I heard that stuffed shirt Rogge say that Bolt needed to "mature".

As far as comparisons between track and swimming go, you're absolutely right, in the end such comparisons are pretty meaningless. All you can really do is compare within sports. That runner you quoted is full of sour grapes, but he has a point in that no track and field athlete could ever hoipe to win five individual golds, since the ideal builds for each event are so different. At the top level, that sport is in a way a sport of freaks. I attended the world track and field championships in both 1999 and 2001, and it was always easy to identify an athlete's event by his build. You'd never mistake a sprinter for a miler, or a shot putter for a pole vaulter. In swimming, the ideal build for the 100 fly is pretty much the same as the ideal build for the 200 free. This doesn't take away from Phelps' greatness, it's just a fact of life. Unfortunately, when Phelps wins four or six or eight more golds in London, it will make swimming golds seem like cheaper currency. We know that isn't the case, but it will seem like that to the outside world.

Scott said...

Hi JC and welcome to my blog. You make a great argument for thinking Bolt is clean. But you don't need to convince me he's legit. Like you I've followed elite athletics for a long time and noticed the very same things about Usain Bolt's stride and build, and how well it contrasts to many of the other top sprinters. Where my post was deficient was my not going into more detail about why Bolt is comparable to Phelps and so better explain why I believe he's "the real deal". Your comments go a long way to clean up any lingering doubts readers may have on that point. Thanks.

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