Sunday, August 17, 2008

Michael Phelps’ Feat Exposes Structural Flaw in Composition of Olympic ™ Events

I don’t understand the attention given to Michael Phelps’s eight gold medals. The feat only highlights a serious flaw in the composition of speed swimming events in the Olympics ™, the fact that the crawl and butterfly (as well as the backstroke) are so dominated by a single factor—namely the idiosyncratic hydrodynamic characteristics of the individual human body—that one athlete close to the human ideal in that one aspect can dominate across all the disciplines in all their distances. It’s like rewarding superior twitch-muscle endowment among competitive runners by having gold medal competitions for 100, 120, 140, 160, 180 and 200 meters.

My guess is that it all began in the early days of the modern Olympics ™, when they had to find a way to balance the number of track and field medal on one hand and that for natatory events on the other.


Michael Reimer said...

Speaking of physical idiosyncrasies, I think that Phelps exposes (not for the first time) something somewhat worse, namely that an Olympic physique is increasingly going to be something that money can buy. I just posted about it here (second part).

Jun Okumura said...


The toolkit for Olympic glory, physical or otherwise, has always been for sale. The market pushes the state-of-the-art, but has it ever been otherwise?

Sophie said...

Interesting in term of competition variation, this year is the first time where a 10km open-water swimming competition will be held. A guy from my town enters, but he’s more into 25km, so the distance will be short for him. But it means that long-distance swimming can add a few events to the swimming panel (10km, 25km and for the crazies a 'real' 42km marathon). You might add fin-swimming to the mix, and retire some other events like 50m races. Then people won’t be able to compete on all fronts.

About Olympic physique being something that money can buy, it has always been the case. You need to be well fed and rather wealthy to care about running or swimming faster than others. What surprised me most about Phelps is his metabolism : 10000 calories of mostly junk food a day.

Michael Reimer said...

True, Jun. Rather than saying "is increasingly going to be" I should just say "is increasingly". It's the increase that scares me.

Jun Okumura said...

Sophie: How nice to hear from you. You know, I noticed the ClustrMap icon on your website and decided to do it myself. I’ve had it for almost two weeks, and it has been… a humbling exercise.

Yes, I agree that swimming events could use a little more variety. The problem is that long-distance events take much longer to complete than similar track events, and are visually less appealing. If only we could leap like dolphins and stage hurdle races. As for Phelps, he still has a long way to go before he can beat this guy at his game.

Michael: Another way of looking at it is that more and more sports are going professional. For the sake of the athletes themselves, I can’t really fault that. And it appears to have become safer recently with better surveillance of steroid use and other forms of doping—an evolution race to be sure. What bothers me more is where parents force-feed their obsessions to their children, most of whom will at best end up with a college scholarship (nothing to sneer at, to be sure), no more.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. With no disrespect to Mr Phelps, it is impossible for the clay pigeon competitors to get eight medals because there is only one clay pigeon event.

As for professionalism -- the Olympics went pro in the 1990s when the USA Dream Team entered for the basketball. There are pros and cons.

I am British. Our cycling gold medals cost 10.4 million UKP each in terms of public money disbursed to the cycling organisation.

I won't begrudge that money as long as there are some long term benefits for society as a whole. For instance, if the Olympic success forces the Mayor of London to introduce proper bike lanes and parking facilities, it will be for the benefit of all cyclist in London.

However, if the only effect of those millions is to let a few cyclists win gold medals, I would rather go back to amateur only Olympics.

Jun Okumura said...

Anonymous British person:

Maybe they should have clay grouse and turkey shoots, and maybe a squirrel shooting event thrown in for variety.

Our government also pours money into our athletic programs aimed at the Olympics, but I don’t mind as long as it is disbursed responsibly and brings in a reasonable number of medals. I don’t think that this is any different from cultural subsidies. In fact, success in the Olympics brings joy to a far wider swathe of the public than national theaters and symphony orchestras. Thus, we could argue, Olympic athletics are more deserving of subsidies because they have larger externalities.

By the time the US Dream Team arrived on the scene, track and field had already gone pro. The Dream Team merely marks the point when the major professional sports entities began using the Olympics as a marketing tool, none as yet nearly as successfully as basketball. What I think is even more remarkable about contemporary Olympics is the products-driven proliferation of new sports such as dirt bikes and mogul skiing. Keep citiusing, altiusing, and fortiusing long enough, and before you know it, it becomes a full-time job. In that sense, we're following the trajectory of the old Greek Olympics. Let's hope that we don't go the way of the ancient Hellenes as well.