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.

Day Six

Some random observations from the first six days of the Olympics:

  • High Definition is just spectacular.  I’m definitely going to be watching less television after these two weeks, because going back to standard definition now is just painful.
  • Freeview has also exceeded my (admittedly somewhat low) expectations. Getting it setup was as simple as a visit to Dick Smiths.  I plugged it in and it more or less set itself up. Nice!
  • The additional “TVNZ Sports Extra” channel is a great.  It was excellent, for example, to be able to watch uninterrupted coverage of the equestrian cross-country event earlier in the week and the cycling road time trials yesterday, both of which only featured on TV One later and even then heavily edited.  Although, I wonder why it’s not broadcast in HD too?  Is there a technical limitation behind this?
  • Related to that: if TVNZ have the rights to all of this content, why don’t we have 10 channels of uninterrupted coverage on Freeview showing all of the different sports?  I’m not really into the gymnastics (or handball, weightlifting, judo, fencing, etc), but I’m sure there are people out there who are so let people choose what they want (see: The Long Tail).
  • What’s with all of our medal chances getting sick?  Have they checked that there are no South Africans on the catering staff in the athletes village?  And, would it have been so bad for Mahe Drysdale to tell us he was sick beforehand, rather than leaving us all to suffer through the last 500m of his race assuming he was just knackered?
  • If Peter Montgomery says “red light, warning, warning” during a rowing commentary again and we lose, will he be allowed back in the country?
  • Getting fourth sucks, doesn’t it!  But, gosh there are a lot of losers at the Olympics: Moss Burmester, for example, was fourth out of a field of forty-four qualifiers.  For him even the 6th fastest time ever was not good enough for a medal.  It’s tough eh!
  • The star of the games so far for me: the slalom kayaker from Togo … just like Eric The Eel, but actually good at his event! (go on and click the Eric link above if you didn’t already … it’s a brilliant Roy and HG commentary of his race in 2000)
  • Does it matter that the giants footprints in the opening ceremony were faked?  Likewise, does it matter that the aforementioned kayaker from Togo actually lives in France and, in fact, hasn’t been back to Togo since he was a baby?
  • Ouch (also, on video, if you can stomach it)
  • Have you noticed how TV3 now has a whole separate row in their daily medal table for Michael Phelps?  They’ve also quietly dropped the NZ medal count which used to be in it’s place.  So far, he’s ahead of all other countries except for Germany, South Korea and China.  And, in fact, is equal with all of the other members of the US team combined!
  • Speaking of Phelps, how come he never gets a tummy bug?  The worst that seems to happen to him is that his goggles fall off, and even then it only means that he doesn’t get to break the world record en route to winning another gold medal.  
  • Has anybody remembered that the All Blacks are playing this weekend?
  • Isn’t it sad that the first thing that crosses the mind of the CEO of New Zealand Equestrian Federation when he watches Andrew Nicholson fall off his horse a couple of days back is not: “bugger, there goes the medal chances” but instead: “bugger, that’s going to stuff our funding!” 
  • Finally, here is a good question for a pub quiz: which country is represented by the three-letter code: IRI?  According to Wikipedia it’s Iran.  I can understand why they might not have wanted IRA, but surely IRN would have been a more sensible choice  Also, further down that page is an explanation for why Malaysia is MAS not MAL.

That will do for now … the sofa beckons.

CORRECTION: It turns out that Michael Phelps did in fact break the world record, even without goggles.  And Moss Burmester is the 6th fastest individual over 200m butterfly, not the 6th fastest time ever (which I imagine actually all belong to said Mr Phelps?)

Ozzy, Ozzy, Ozzy

The Olympics kick-off tonight.

So, with Freeview HD ready and waiting and 18 fewer hours per day to be writing blog posts things might be a little quieter around here over the next couple of weeks. :-)

Lance links to a great interactive Olympic Medal Map from the NY Times.

As you drag the slider along it’s interesting to see how pre-WWII the Olympics were dominated by Europe and the USA,  then along comes the Soviet Union and East Germany (apart from 1984 in LA, when NZ won a record 8 gold medals), then become much more global in more recent times the medals start to be spread around Asia, South America and Africa (with the exception of 1976, when African countries boycotted, and John Walker won the 1500m).

And, as Lance notes, in the last couple of Olympics the main talking point has been the rise and rise of Australia.  From winning no golds at all in Montreal to 4th place on the medal table in both Sydney and Athens with 16 and 17 gold respectively.  As Richie might say: “fine effort that”.

At the Athens games they even passed us on a per capita basis, where we normally do pretty well.

These tables (from the Google cache as the original site is no longer) show the medal rankings from the Athens games by population and by GDP:

By Population (Australia 3rd with 0.85 gold medals per million people; NZ 7th with 0.74 per million)

By GDP (NZ: 21st; Australia: 25th)

The big winner is Cuba, who is 3rd by both measures.

So, what about predictions for this time around…

The Australian Olympic Committee is predicting they will win 44 medals, 20 of them gold.  So to match that on a per capita basis we’d need to win 9 medals including 4 golds.

(using population numbers from the CIA World Factbook)

Here are the 11 candidates who have a current top-3 world ranking heading into the games: Valerie Vili in athletics; Sarah Walker and Catherine Cheatley in cycling; Mahe Drysdale, the men’s coxless four and coxless pair in rowing; Tom Ashley, Barbara Kendall and Andrew Murdoch in sailing; and Bevan Docherty and Samantha Warriner in triathlon.

In addition to those there are another 28 kiwi athletes who are ranked in the top eight in their events, and keep in mind Hamish Carter was well outside the rankings heading into the triathlon in Athens, and we all know how that ended up.

I think they can do it!

Oi, Oi, Oi!

Bonus (for stats geeks): based on this guys analysis “the number of medals won is roughly proportional to the cube root of the population.”  So there you go!

Hamish Carter

“If God invented marathons to keep people from doing anything more stupid, the triathlon must have taken Him completely by surprise”
P.Z. Pearce

Hamish Carter has decided to pull the plug on his legendary triathlon career.

Here is what he had to say in the NZ Herald about winning at the Athens Olympics in ’04:

“It was one of those experiences so massive and powerful that every time I think about it, it gives me goosebumps.”

Mate, thinking about that race gives me goosebumps, and I was just watching from the other side of the world, so I can only imagine how inspirational that memory is for you.

It’s exciting to see you joining Rod and the guys at Xero (which is starting to emerge from the shadows this week). Good luck with Act II.

UPDATE: Rod has more details.