Swimming vs. Athletics

February 2, 2009

This is a guest post written by my brother Brad, who has his own blog about nutrition and sport at kitchenpt.com. Enjoy!

When Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals at the Beijing Olympics he broke 7 world records.  The only event he missed out on was the 100m Butterfly – he was too slow by just 0.18 of a second and only broke the Olympic Record. To achieve all of this he had to swim 17 races in 9 days.

Compare this to Usain Bolt who ran in only 9 events (he did not run in the heats of the relay) over 8 days, winning 3 golds and breaking 3 world records in athletics.

It seems there is no competition between these athletes: Phelps is clearly superior. Or is he…?

How was Phelps able to win so many events, and more importantly overcome the cumulative fatigue that heats and semi-finals in all those events bring? Was it simply because swimming is lower impact than running, and therefore swimmers can compete in more events?

Recently an extraordinary number of swimming world records have been broken. It seems at every major competition you would be unlucky to win and _**not **_break the world record. As an example of how quickly swimming records are coming down, in one of Phelps’ events (the 4x100m), the first 6 places all broke the world record for the event (as it stood prior to the Olympics). Imagine swimming faster than anybody ever has in your event, at the Olympics, and finishing in sixth place. Sixth for goodness sake!

In Beijing there were 25 world records broken in 15 events in the pool.  And, on the track, just 5 world records broken in 5 events. So why are so many world records in swimming being broken recently?

It turns out there are lots of reasons:

Many swimmers and commentators cite the new swim wear as the primary reason. But can it all be explained by a pair of togs?

What about drugs? Why are drug cheats virtually unheard of in swimming? Can you ever name a swimmer being stripped of a medal and kicked out of any major competition in the world?

I think there are other factors at play that can at least partly explain why Phelps (and swimming in general) achieved “greater” success than athletics.

The first part is the recent evolution of the sport as we currently know it.  As an example of how far swimming had to grow, before 1936 swimmers did not use the tumble-turn between lengths nor begin races on starting blocks, and before 1976 swimmers at the Olympics participated without goggles!

It seems that athletics has evolved further earlier due to its relative simplicity. This has allowed swimming to appear to be moving forwards at a faster rate, whereas in fact the case may simply be that it had further to move.

The second reason is accessibility to pools and competition. There is no doubt track and field athletes compete against a far greater number of people who have tried their hand at their sport. Think of yourself and everyone you know: How many times would have you raced someone over the playground at school or at the beach with friends? Compare that with the number of times you have raced those same people in backstroke or butterfly.

What about the number of events? There are 47 athletics events at the Olympics, and only 34 swimming events. So on the face of it swimmers have a slight disadvantage when it comes to winning medals. However, it is the similarity of the events that gives swimmers the advantage (more on this shortly).

On top of Phelps’ undoubted phenomenal talent, it was Phelps’ versatility, and the ability of his team members, that saw him capture so many golds:

Bolt’s world records by comparison came in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. So on individual performances the score seems to be Phelps 3 vs Bolt 2.

However, between swimming and athletics there seems to be some disproportion in events.  For example, I see no logical reason why inferior methods of getting from point A to point B are included in major competitions other than:

  1. “That’s the way we have always done it”, and/or
  2. Sponsorship/TV ($$$)

Specifically backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly make as much sense as running backwards, 1-leg hopping, and racing on all fours have in athletics. And before you dismiss these “sports” as outrageous, you may be interested to know that the record for the 100m run backwards is 13.6 seconds, and for the marathon 3:43.39 – times not to be scoffed at! If I were the world record holders of these events (which I am not before you cry conspiracy theory) I would feel hard done by when there are backstrokers, breaststrokers and butterfly swimmers who are enjoying the benefits of inclusion and recognition far beyond what these “Retro-Runners” ever will.

And so, given that Bolt was not allowed to compete in the 100m backwards running, hopping, or ‘all-fours’ events we should discount Phelps’ golds in the butterfly. And this now gives us a fair comparison of achievement at the Beijing Olympics:

There we have it, Bolt is the better athlete.

And for those that are interested: The 4x100m Retro Running world record being broken.

Comments from Rowan:

In case it isn’t obvious, Brad is more of a runner than a swimmer!  

Here are some more posts from his excellent blog that I’ve enjoyed over the last couple of years:

Also, if you’re interested in writing a guest post here about something you’re interested in or working on please feel free to get in touch.  My email address is on the right hand sidebar.