Swimming vs. Athletics [Guest Post]

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:

  • Three of his golds came from medley events: Individual Medley (200m and 400m), and Medley Relay;
  • Two more came from team relays: The Freestyle Relay (4x100m and 4x200m);
  • His other three golds came in individual events: Butterfly (100m and 200m) and Freestyle (200m).

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:

  • Phelps: 1 gold, 1 world record vs Bolt: 2 golds, 2 world records.

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.

8 thoughts on “Swimming vs. Athletics [Guest Post]”

  1. I have to agree, but at least the difference between swimming strokes is not as ambiguous as walking vs running. A “walking race” is an oxymoron.

  2. Agreed – “walking” is as deserving as a spot in the Olympics as “breaststroke”. You could say the same about “triple jump”, “synchronized swimming” etc also, but all we would end up doing is massively offending all the breaststrokers, walkers, triple jumpers, and synchronized swimmers out there.

    My point is simply this: There has never been a 100m/race walking medalist at the Olympics. The reason: They are very different events (primarily in distance, and not in muscles used. If there were ever a 100m walk then it would be different story completely).

    Swimming is different.

    People can easily win 6…7….8….(?) medals, and are then touted as the ‘Greatest Olympian of All Time’, where in fact they simply able to compete in many events that have huge cross-over between them – and so allow versatile athletes with good team mates to clean up. Of course they have to be phenomenal athletes too – which Phelps undoubtedly is.

    And just for the record: I love swimming. Also, I never want to see a 100m walking race.

  3. (Sorry this is late) Hell yeah! Are you sure we haven’t met? I have been saying this for years. It should fastest from one end to the other, doesn’t matter how you do it (as long as you don’t touch the bottom). Breaststroke, butterfly and backstroke (all the “B” strokes) are stupid! Why invent a slower way of swimming? I too use the backwards running race as a parallel.

    I also believe that all competition where judging is used should be canned, and all team sports should be canned.

  4. @Chainsaw:

    I’ve heard the “no sports that require judges” and “no team sports” arguments before (in fact, I may have made those arguments myself at various times).

    There is another common one: “no sports where the Olympics isn’t the pinnacle of the sport”.

    But, the devil is in the details. For example, there are hardly any sports that don’t involve some form of referee – like the person who decides if an athlete is disqualified if he steps on the line in athletics. Is that “judging”? I assume you’re talking about subjective judging – e.g. points out of 10 for artistic merit.

    Let’s go through the sports and see what would be left…

    * Archery – In
    * Athletics – In, although the walking and hurdles events might not qualify (in the same way as butterfly and breaststroke don’t in the swimming)
    * Badminton – In?
    * Basketball – Out, team sport and also not the pinnacle of the sport
    * Boxing – Out, requires judges (unless each fight is to a KO!)
    * Canoe / Kayak – In
    * Cycling – In, although does the Team Pursuit count as a team sport – the name would suggest it does.
    * Diving – Out, requires judges
    * Equestrian – In, apart from those events that include dressage as that requires judges.
    * Fencing – In
    * Football – Out, a team sport and REALLY not the pinnacle of the sport (well I suppose it is for those under 23!)
    * Gymnastics – SOOOO Out
    * Handball – Out, team sport
    * Hockey – Out, team sport
    * Judo – Out, judges
    * Modern pentathlon – In
    * Rowing – In
    * Sailing – In
    * Shooting – In
    * Synchronized Swimming – Out
    * Swimming – In, but significantly reduced as only freestyle events would be allowed
    * Table tennis – In, curiously
    * Taekwondo – Out, judges
    * Tennis – Out, not the pinnacle of the sport
    * Triathlon – In
    * Volleyball – Out, team sport
    * Water Polo – Out, team sport
    * Weightlifting – Too close to call: does it require judges (yes, but it’s hard to say if the judging is subjective), and it would probably be a Clean-And-Jerk event only as the Snatch is clearly not the most efficient lifting technique
    * Wrestling – Out, judges

    I have to say, it would be a much smaller and, I reckon, much less interesting event if that were to happen.

    Don’t hold your breath!

    PS If you think you’re angry now just wait until golf, roller skating, surfing and (wait for it) bridge are included in the Olympics – all four “sports” are recognised by the IOC. I would argue that Tug-o-War (last contested at the Antwerp Olympics in 1920) should come back onto the programme ahead of all of those.

  5. I have always struggled with Equestrian events – shouldn’t the horse get the medals?

    Or maybe its because I can’t ride a horse.

  6. I’d be quite happy to see your list put into action. A way way smaller Olympics would be good, not many countries can afford to host it at present. Except synchronised swimming must stay of course, everyone loves that!
    I wouldn’t ban the other swimming strokes, just let them use whatever they want!

    @tr3v – me too!

  7. I’m just thinking out loud, but i believe if your going to attack the different strokes of swimming you have to mention at least mention hurdles in running. No, we don’t need to jump to run and no we don’t need to swim in extremely hard styles to get to our destination, but we do. In fact that was a very silly move. I say this because, no on has to run in a circle or swim back and forth endlessly; its just a sport
    I ran and swam for 16 years and i still remember the first time i tried to swim butterfly. I was in high school and i bet my swimming friend that i could swim more laps than him any day… i never got to the other side. My failure made me start swimming and to this very day swimming fly is an extremely strenuous task.
    In the end, without the fluff, my point is that you can’t dismiss a sport that over 6 billion people cannot compete in in the lowest of levels. (elementary/primary school)

  8. @Tim

    Great comment! :-)

    Your point about running around in circles or swimming back and forth is excellent.

    Perhaps that’s why events like the Coast-To-Coast grab our imagination?

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