Saturday, August 23, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Olympics

First, Michael Phelps was spectacular. There's no denying that. What he did was amazing. Congratulations to him and his teammates. (Note: The most impressive moment of all of the swimming events that I saw was Lezak chasing down and passing Bernard in that 4 x 100 m freestyle relay.)

However, given the coverage and praise that has been heaped upon Phelps, Usain Bolt has not gotten nearly enough attention in the television coverage here in the U.S.

Once again (as happens every time the Olympics comes around), I am reminded that our televised Olympics coverage really is way too America-centric. I wonder what the coverage in Jamaica has been like. I hope Bolt has been getting his due there!

Unfortunately, it seems that half the commentary I have heard about Bolt has been disparaging remarks about his poor sportsmanship (exuberance) and showboating (premature celebration). I feel somewhat cheated by not seeing what he would have done in the 100 m if he had really given it his all. But I will not pile on with the criticism. He left me wanting more. That's all.

Here's my take on Bolt: What he did in the 100 meter race may have been the most jaw-dropping performance I have ever seen in sport. It was utterly astonishing! Basically, the guy coasted for the last 15 meters and he still beat the rest the best in the world have ever offered.

Here's the analogy that came to mind when I saw it: Imagine a 50 meter freestyle race, in the final round of the Olympics, in which someone was so far ahead of the field that he could roll over and take his last two or three strokes on his back, still win the race, and still break the world record. It's unthinkable!

The 100 meter run record is a slow dropper. In the last 25 years, the world record in the event has now dropped, on average, just under 0.01 seconds per year. In the last year, Bolt has been responsible for fully 1/5 of that entire drop. And in establishing the new record in Beijing, he wasn't really trying! The guy didn't push until the end. Not even close. He knew he was going to win, and he relaxed. It was absolutely phenomenal.

For comparison purposes, consider that in the last 25 years, the 100 meter dash record time has dropped by just 2.4%.

The 50 meter freestyle long course record time has dropped by 5.51%.
The 100 meter butterfly long course record time has dropped by 5.69%.
The 100 meter breaststroke long course record time has dropped by 5.69%. (This shocks me! Given the complete change that the stroke has undergone, I would have though this would be more like a 10-15% drop.)
The 100 meter freestyle long course record time has dropped by 4.68%.

But winning the 100 meter run wasn't the end of it. Bolt then went on to break the 200 meter running record, which has been an even slower dropper than the 100 meter running record! In almost 29 years, the record for the 200 has now dropped by just 2.1%. Based on these record progressions, it's entirely reasonable to assume that runners are closer to reaching the limits of performance than are swimmers. And Bolt has shown that he is closer than anyone, although watching his performances, it's very difficult to assume that he has come close to reaching his own potential.

Again, I'm not saying that Phelps has not been absolutely spectacular. He has. Period. And in terms of what he has done to shatter records, it's absolutely true that Phelps is head and shoulders above anything Bolt has done. For example, in the 200 meter butterfly, Phelps has singlehandedly dropped the record by as much in just over 7 years as it had been previously dropped in just under 25 years. That's incredible! But in terms of strictly what's happened in Beijing, I would argue that Bolt's performance has been every bit as astonishing as Phelps' performance.

(And just for a bit of snarky nostalgia, I'll throw this in: Michael Phelps will always be an underage drunk driver to me.)

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There's an often uttered saying in the sports world: "That's why they play the games."

The idea is that on any given day, anyone can be beaten. However, with the women's beach volleyball competition, I really felt as much as ever that there was a foregone conclusion in play.

I could hardly have been less enthusiastic about my role as a spectator in this event. As the tournament was happening, I watched minutes here and there, but I made no real effort to tune in and pay attention. I would stop watching matches long before their conclusions, paying little attention to where the scores stood. I simply assumed that May-Treanor and Walsh would prevail. And, of course, they did not disappoint.

There was no surprise in learning that they had gotten to the gold medal match. There was no surprise in learning that they had not dropped a set. Did I watch the gold medal match? Yes. Start to finish, with almost no enthusiasm. I was awed! I won't deny that. What you're watching when you watch Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor play together is simply the best there has ever been, doing what they do best. You should be aware of it and you should marvel at it. It is a genuine privilege. But sadly, it's just not edge-of-your seat, "anything can happen" competition. It's as much like watching destiny unfold as the sports fan can experience.

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