2008 Olympics: Why all sports aren’t created equal

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Gymnastics, swimming, and track and field are the poster sports for the Olympics. They toil for 3.9 years in almost total anonymity to the general (American) public and then BAM…they are passionately followed by everyone. As a track nut, this is one of the many reasons why I feel I can relate to and more thoroughly enjoy watching swimming and gymnastics. The human highlight of the swimming program is American Michael Phelps, who as of this writing has won 2 Olympic Golds in Beijing and is on a quest to break Mark Spitz’s record of 7 gold medals in one Games and to break the all-time record of track’s Ray Ewry who won a whopping 10 career gold medals. Over the course of the first 2 days of the games I’ve repeatedly heard that Phelps has the chance to be the greatest Olympian of all-time and other similar titles if he is to win his 8 gold medals.

With all due respect to Michael Phelps (because he’s undoubtedly an unbelievable talent and incredibly hard worker), I don’t think using medal count across sports is a fair means to assess greatness as an Olympian. For all their similarities (quantitatively assessed, individually based, cyclic motions, etc), their are some key differences that make the sports two COMPLETELY different animals. Here’s a few:

  1. Swimming is a non-impact sport. This has HUGE ramifications for performance, recovery, sustainability, and likelihood of injury. Athletes in swimming are able to recover MUCH faster than their collision occurring dry-land brethren. Impact induces microtrauma to all the soft tissue and increases the likelihood of catastrophic injuries like fractures, pulls, ruptures, and the like. This is why swimmers have no problem putting in 6 hours of training a day and 10-20 training sessions in a week. A similar schedule for a track athlete would BURY even the hardiest Chinese female distance runner. This is also why t
  2. The pool itself offers a mild form of therapeutic massage because of the hydrostatic pressure of water and the thermal transfer of heat from muscles to the water. This further reduces inflammatory responses and microtrauma to the soft tissue that might prevent repeated high intensity performances.
  3. The sport isn’t as competitive as track. It just simply isn’t. Phelps is almost undoubtedly the greatest talent to ever take on the sport of swimming. At 6’4 with the wing span of a man much taller and hands dwarfed only by his feet, Phelps was made to swim. The same might be said for Usain Bolt who recently broke the 100m world record with his 9.72 seconds. Similar to Phelps, Bolt dwarfs his competitors and was recognized as a prodigious talent from a very young age. Unlike Phelps however, Bolt has only broken the world record by 0.02 seconds and has several competitors who could beat him on any given day. Phelps on the other hand SHATTERS world records in seconds. FULL SECONDS. And leaves his competitors eating his proverbial wake as if they were swimming in sand. This indicates to me that the sport of swimming has yet to approach the point of talent saturation that track and field has. More specifically, swimming is not yet at the point where you HAVE to be at the 99.99th percentile of the genetic bell curve to compete at the highest levels. When we start to see the world records level off, and when we start to see them being broken less frequently, then and only then will I believe that the sport of swimming is as competitive as track on the world stage.
  4. Swimming doesn’t require the same number of rounds as track and field does to qualify for the finals. In swimming, an athlete only has to advance through one round to make it to the finals. In track, this is only true for the endurance events. The 100m, for example, has three rounds of qualifying just to make it to the finals. And at the end of the day, the winner of the 100m still only gets one medal. When a swimmer races that many times, they have the opportunity to take home two medals. So not only is it physiologically easier for a swimmer to attempt repeated efforts of maximal intensity (see points 1 & 2), they are more easily awarded medals for their effort when they do.
  5. The fact that athletes can be SOOO dominant across such varied events indicates that if you are at the tip of the genetic iceberg and train your butt off you can be SO GOOD that even athletes who are specialists (with presumably less talent) cannot beat you. For example, it’s not uncommon in swimming for athletes to be champions (or at least be capable of being champions) in the 50m, 100m, 200m, and 400m freestyles AT THE SAME TIME. When we look at the time durations of these events they are roughly equivalent to events on the track that are four times as long. Can you imagine a 200m sprinter (essentially the same time as a 50m in swimming) also being a champion at the 1500m (about the same time duration as the 400m in swimming). It would NEVER happen. Not in a million years. This indicates that either the talent levels in the sport are no where near what they are for track, and / or performance has much less to do with physiology (specifically energy system fitness) than in track.
  6. Environmental factors such as wind, rain, temperature, and even lane assignment are much less of a factor (if a factor at all) in the sport of swimming. These variables make the seemingly straight forward sport of track and field, highly unpredictable at times. Much more so than swimming.

Does this take anything away from Phelps? Hell No! The guy certainly goes in to the pantheon of Greatest Olympians whether he wins his 8 medals or not. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s unfair to sports like track to compare greatness when it just simply isn’t possible to do what Phelps is doing.
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Mike Young

Mike Young

Founder of ELITETRACK at Athletic Lab
Mike has a BS in Exercise Physiology from Ohio University, an MSS in Coaching Science from Ohio University & a PhD in Biomechanics from LSU. Additionally, he has been recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength & Conditioning Association, a Level 3 coach by USA Track & Field, a Level 2 coach by USA Weightlifting.
Mike Young

@mikeyoung

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