Thursday, August 14, 2008

There But For The Strokes of Phelps Go I

Much is being said in the blogosphere about the complete lack of interest in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Typically, and somewhat surprisingly given the blogs I haunt, it's more a matter of total lack of interest rather than any sort of anti-ChiCom political statement. Or at least that's what the avoiders claim, perhaps in an attempt to seem iconoclastic. Well, I'm largely in their boat, AND the other boat -- I detest the atrocities of the Chinese Communist regime and the entire political ethos for which they stand, so that takes away any potential interest I might have in watching them perform; but on the other hand, there was virtually no interest in the various Olympic competitions in the first place, so it's a move from infinitesimal to zero, really.

The one exception to this, though, is Men's Swimming, and in particular, Michael Phelps' performance therein. I defy anyone to watch the video of the Men's 4x200 or 4x100 relays (available currently here), or any of Phelps' individual events, and not feel the spark of American dominance and competition somewhere in their cold, "Citizen of the World" hearts. Just look at this already-classic photo of Phelps upon realizing that his team just beat the famously cocky French team ("The Americans? We're going to smash them. That's what we came here for.")in the 4x100 relay to win the gold:

That's America. Victorious and unafraid to show it. His enthusiasm during that match is a great sight to see as well; I advise you all to go seek out that video (no embed for dumb ol' NBC so far -- maybe they'll wise up eventually). It's also great to be a part of his epic chase for the all-time inter-Olympic gold medal record (now accomplished) and the all-time intra-Olympic gold medal record (5 down, 3 to go, and the "hard" events are behind him), and to watch him score a world record in Every. Single. One.

But antagonistically-godless Buchananite curmudgeon John Derbyshire (linked above, and oh how I do so love calling him increasingly descriptive names!) made a pretty good point, effectively raining on my parade:
If you are real good at running, jumping, throwing, basketball, etc, you may get a gold medal. If you are real good at swimming, however, you can get a dozen or so. How is this fair?
I don't really have an answer to that. Darn you, Derb!

Update: I posed the quote to Mrs. Red Shirt. Her (strong, I think), point, which dovetails into Marty's comment in the comments section, is that it's a matter of training choices. A gymnast, for example, could spend time training in each and every event (pommel horse, rings, bars, floor exercise, spring board, etc.). It would be insanely rigorous, but it's been done before. Same with track & field, as Marty says. Nothing is preventing a stand-out runner from competing in multiple T&F events of a similar nature; there's lots and lots of races that are almost exact analogs to the various swim events. For whatever reason, they don't, and swimmers do. Mrs. Red Shirt argues that mastering different strokes is possibly even more difficult than different running events, for example. In fact, many many events have multiple "flavors" in a similar vein: fencing has epee, saber, etc., shooting has single trap, double trap, prone, pistol, etc., weight lifting has multiple weight classes, etc., etc... The mechanics within a single grouping are all very similar, so perhaps it IS (as per Marty) a matter of over-specialization in all but the one field of swimming.

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Blogger Martin said...

Yep. I agree with Derb. But part of me is glad things are the way they are. Poor Kerri Walsh and Misty May have to slog through a long tournament, utterly dominating every team they come up against, yet still risking injury and possible elimination, to win one...stinkin'...Gold. But that means I get to watch girls beach volleyball every evening. And these girls, though not classically proportioned up top, are still quite fetching.

What's even more interesting to me as a runner is that the same is not so true of track and field, and you'd think it would be. I mean, it's pretty rare for an athlete in T&F to compete in more than a couple of events there, and for there to be such a medal haul. Carl Lewis was really the last one. It seems in swimming that this goes on all the time. I think there are either too many events in swimming, or T&F is becoming more specialized.

[BTW, back in the day, medal hauls in T&F were much more common.]

3:43 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

See my update for a response.

4:40 PM  
Anonymous Marty said...

When I get out of my lazy mode, if ever, I'll have to do some research on how many running events there are as opposed to how many swimming events. I won't pit T&F in general against swimming, because though there are notable exceptions (e.g. Carl Lewis), it's not too often a runner is often a star at field events. Given that, there are definitely different cadences, and techniques, that separate sprinters from distance runners, and from hurdlers. It is exceedingly rare that you have someone who crosses the boundaries between those categories. A 100m runner will sometimes be a good 200m. A 200m will sometimes be a good 400m. Rarely will a 100m be a good 400m. And all these are sprint events. Likewise in the medium distance (800, 1500) and distance (5K, 10K, marathon) and specialty runs (steeple chase). It's a different body type and training regimen to be a sprinter or a 5K guy. NEVER the twain shall meet. And seldom does it meet from one end of a category to the other (100 to 400). Likewise with sprinting vs hurdling the same distance.

So how many medals can a sprinter win? A really good 100 guy who is also good at the 200 could win the 100, the 200, and the 4X100. There is no 4X200 in the Olymics. (THough the event exists in some competitions, as well as some other odd-ball medley events that are not Olympic events.) Forget the hurdles (nobody crosses that line). Forget going higher (though 400m is a sprint, no 100m runner does that).

There is nothing in running like the variety that is in swimming. It seems that most Olympic track events have the express purpose of covering a set distance as fast as possible. Or, in the case of hurdles and steeplechase, covering a set distance as fast as possible given certain obstacles. The exception is race walking, which to my mind is idiotic (and almost never televised for more than 20 seconds or so). In swimming, it's lets swim from point A to point B in as many different ways as possible, including idiotic ways. Who that wanted to go 100m fast would ever do the backstroke to get there? Who the butterfly, unless he was tethered and towing something (and they don't make butterfliers tow anything - it would make it more of a field event. Who would do the breast? It's all silly, inefficient variation. As if there was a track event for sprint, silly walk, skipping, and hopping.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

Your comment only further demolishes Derb's complaint, as per my update. The various strokes ARE radically different (if perhaps superfluous). And yet on occasion one individual masters many of them. Sounds like an argument for a bunch of wusses in other events rather than "unfair" competition conditions in swimming versus other events.

6:27 AM  
Anonymous Marty said...

Having not read the Derb piece, I guess what I was "agreeing" with is that (1) the phenomenon happens and (2) it's not, to my mind, fair. I do agree with the brilliant Mrs Red Shirt that there is a significant amount of talent involved in learning to excel at several strokes. But my unstated objection to the surfeit of swim medals is a philosophical one that applies to the Olympics as a whole. It kind of comes down to a "What is a sport?" question, which we could get really involved in.

The Olympics had their origin in events that had some martial applicability. They celebrated strength, speed, and agility. Later, more "games" were introduced, such as basketball, baseball, ping-pong, etc (I don't know if the ancient Games had what we would call "games" in them). In a nutshell, what my philosophy objects to is stylized sports and "games" that have limited international appeal and little or no athleticism (unless they are martial). So, my philosophy would object to synchronized swimming, race walking, several swim strokes, dressage in equestrian events, ice dancing, and some parts of gymnastics. It would have baseball on the edge of acceptability (even though I love the game) and would get rid of ping-pong. And bowling would be out (is it in now, or was that something that has yet to be foisted on us?) Golf, out. Shooting in, because despite it being non-athletic, it's martial.

Unfortunately, my philosophy leaves me open to having to accept X-games type sports, even though I think most of them are stupid. They do require high degrees of athletic ability and are generally not meaninglessly stylized, as are, e.g., swim strokes and race walking.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I totally agree with everything you just said, which is why, generally, I avoid the Olympics as well. But damn, watching Phelps' athleticism is a sight to behold.

Also, I neglected to mention in my previous post that I would pay good money to watch the 4x100 Silly Walk relay.

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Marty said...

As long as you're paying, that's another reason to send you an invite to next year's MFCO XXI.

12:37 PM  

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