Monday, August 25, 2008

Bolt Versus Phelps

As much as China's attitude towards Tibet digusts, there's no denying the successful, spectacular nature of the 2008 Olympics.

Imagine some new sprinting events. One would be a "chicken sprint", where the athlete is required to insert his hands into his armpits for the duration of the run. In another event, the hands must be held over the head with elbows locked. A locked-knee sprint could be included. How about one in which the athlete is required to raise his knees to the level of his sternum on each step? All of the above would have 100, 200, and 400 meter categories, as well as relays and medleys.

Perhaps a "silly sprinting" event would be overboard.

In any case, if such events were ever to be seen, would anyone be surprised to see a character like Usain Bolt walk away with, say, eight gold medals around his neck?

As absurd as the chicken sprint seems, isn't that what we have in the swimming events? There's the breaststroke, the butterfly, and the backstroke, with medleys and relays. Judges eyeball the contestants, prepared to disqualify any of them for breaking form. There's also the freestyle event. In the end, though, there's nothing freestyle about freestyle...the fastest stroke is clearly the American crawl, so that's what all freestylers inevitably use.

I don't doubt that hardcore swimming afficionados would be indignant about my take on the butterfly stroke. It's a uniquely challenging form with a long history (?), they'd say. But c'mon...when an Olympic athlete comes home with a hoarde of medals, he/she is most certainly a swimmer. Phelps broke Spitz's record for medal haul, which Ian Thorpe had threatened in Sydney. Isn't it obvious that there isn't any great separation of skillsets between swimming events?

As much as I like to see Phelps padding the American gold medal count, I'll cast my vote for Usain Bolt as the superhero of the 2008 Olympics. In the event that displays the rawest, most touted, most sought-after athletic skill (speed!), he easily annihilated the competition and the world record. Given his relatively poor explosion from the blocks, it's fair to speculate that somewhere around the 60 meter mark, he was propelling himself faster than any of the roughly 100,000,000,000 humans in history.


Gymnastics is another sport where multiple medals are frequently seen. Here, the above complaint (of large overlap between skillsets in different events) applies, but perhaps less strongly. The problem with Olympic gymnastics is the fact that the athletes can only receive medals in particular events if they've already displayed competence in all four gymnastic events. To take this logic to an extreme, imagine that you can't enter the shot put competition unless you've already demonstrated that you're an elite decathlete. The talent pool of potential shot-putters is then slashed dramatically, and it would then be no surprise to see an individual medaling in both the shot put and the decathlon.

Gymnastics is spectacular, but can there be any doubt that it would be even more so if gymnasts were allowed to specialize in one event? In other words, an athlete could specialize entirely on the floor routine, foregoing the training required for the vault, balance beam, and parallel bars. In addition to an increase in the mind-bogglingedness of the performances, we might see a decline in some of the alleged abuses of young female gymnasts, who must maintain an insane training regimen to prepare for four events.

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