August 21, 2008

Bolt's Accomplishments Watered Down (Pun Intended)

Usain Bolt has broken his own 100M sprint record (with an untied shoe and a pull-up finish) as well as Michael Johnson's 200M record in this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. So much for the smog (and a slight headwind) slowing down the runners.

Normally, this would be a monumental accomplishment. But, thanks to Michael Phelps and the Speedo LZR, world records have become meaningless in these Olympics. Records in the pool and falling left and right, as new swimsuit technology has allowed swimmers to trim nearly whole seconds off of each 100M length. This is wholly unfair to Bolt.

Most fans pay little or no attention to swimming, gymnastics and track and field except for every four years when the Olympics are held. We only know what the folks on the television tell us. Rather than downplay the smashing of swimming records for the first week of the games, Rowdy Gaines and others screamed and applauded the amazing performances by Phelps and others. They often glossed over the fact that sometimes racers, especially at longer distances, broke the world record without even reaching the medal podium.

blahblahblah The real hero of the Beijing Games - Speedo LZR

Then we went to the track, where records are much hardier, and we didn't blink when records fell. People who are part of the track community, or ran track in high school or college, are stupified by Bolt's amazing accomplishments. Casual fans wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, Bolt only has two gold medals. So what if he's the fastest man in the world, Phelps has eight. Of course, there is no backstroke, butterfly, or breaststroke in track, so Bolt has won just about everything he could win. Even the 400M, which has always occupied that weird middle-distance status, is a totally different race than the sprints.

If you need perspective on Bolt's accomplishments, look at the Track and Field world records as they existed prior to Beijing. Many of the records are over a decade old. Many of the sprint records are younger, but this is understandable as the margins between victory and defeat are measured in the hundreths of seconds. Improvements in shoe, stadium, apparel and track engineering are going to have the greatest effect on the shaving those times. Even then, the records last for years and are only marginally broken.

Usain Bolt has arguably made the most important and impressive contribution to these games, but thanks to Michael Phelps he'll probably be best remembered for being a bit of a showboat.

10 Responses:

Brien said...

Yeah, the swimming records were a little ridiculous, and they deserved more coverage.

That said, some people (*cough* Dan Shanoff *cough*) are going a bit overboard with the whole Bolt thing.

He's unquestionably the biggest track story of the Olympics, but I'm not sure I'd put him ahead of Michael Johnson (only man to win the 200-400 double) or Carl Lewis (who also won long jump gold medals).

Also, the big story with Phelps wasn't the world records, it was the gold medals. Everyone else was wearing LZRs, but Phelps still beat them.

Nic said...

I think the swimming records, well Phelps records, deserved more coverage but not as much as they're getting.
I'm the hugest Phelps fan ever...not as obessive as the ATT commercial though, but now I'm kinda sick of seeing him everywhere.

However, I think the reason why we are hearing so much about Phelps is cuz he's American. I bet Bolt is getting a lot more coverage globally. And I bet Bolt would be all over our air waves for his accomplishments, rather than the IOC's comments of his showboating, if he was born in the USA.

J-Red said...

I think part of why Bolt is such a big story is that he ISN'T American. He's from a country with the population of Oklahoma. He is blowing away not just the world today, but the world that has ever come before, and he's doing it AFTER Maurice Green and others went down for doping violations.

Russell said...

Totally agree.

Boldon's comment that he expected Michael Johnson's 200 record to stand til the day he died put things in perspective a little bit. No one else in that final was within half a second of the record (at least 5m). Before two runners were DQ'ed, that was the fastest 200m ever, with 5 runners under 20 seconds. Even in the fastest race ever at that distance, only one guy was even close to the record.

Russell said...

Btw, "Totally agree" refers to the article, not J-Red's last comment, in case that wasn't clear.

Brien said...

I agree that he's the biggest story of this Olympics and he's the best track talent of the decade, but this "best ever" stuff is a bit ridiculous.

Explain to me how it's even possible to compare him to Michael Johnson (4 golds, still the only man to win the 200 and 400 at the same Olympics) or Carl Lewis (9 golds in 4 different events over 12 years).

He has a chance to be talked about as one of the best ever, but he needs to repeat his performance in London and maybe add the 400 to the mix. Winning the 100, 200, and 400 would definitely make him the best sprinter ever.

Russell said...

I don't know about "best ever" but I have no problem crowning him "fastest ever". He could have torched the world record in the 100m, and took Michael Johnson's record in the 200. I have never seen anyone run faster than he did when he pulled away in the 100 final. It was absurd. He's unquestionably the fastest man I've ever seen.

I think we'll see him lower both records in the next three months, at meets where he doesn't have to run both events or as many heats.

And Brien, you don't think Bolt's double in the 100 and 200 is comparable to Johnson's in the 200 and 400? Why not? Pretty soon you'll say he has to win the 1500m to be the best ever. What's so special about the 400? I could argue that Johnson should have won the 100. If Bolt repeats in the 100-200 in London and keeps/lowers his records, I think it would be hard to argue he's not the best sprinter ever.

Brien said...

I think the 200-400 double is more impressive because only 1 man has ever done it. I didn't say Bolt has to win the 400 to be considered the best ever, just that if he did, he would be unquestionably the best.

I agree that if he repeats in London, he's got to be at least in the discussion.

J-Red said...

The 100-200 double is more common because both can be trained for the exact same way. They're both flat-out sprints. The 400 is requires a little more pacing.

I think it would be fair to say he's had the single best one-Games performance ever by an Olympic sprinter. He's definitely not the greatest track star ever, yet, or the greatest Olympic athlete ever. That's the distinction between what Bolt has done in Beijing and what Carl Lewis accomplished.

Sidenote on Lewis: he qualified for the 1980 Games too in Moscow, but we boycotted. His haul could have been ever greater.

Anonymous said...

the 400m isnt a wierd race. It might be the hardest race in track and field because of the unique combo of power, speed and endurance you need. Bolt's achievements are truly inspiring, but as a true track and field fan, I wish he ran hard during the 100. He could have broke 9.5

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