I’ll put in my two cents on this Usain Bolt versus Michael Phelps discussion.
8 gold medals (7 world records, 1 Olympic record) (5 individual events, 3 team events)
Men’s 4 x 100m Medley
Men’s 100m Butterfly
Men’s 200m Medley
Men’s 4 x 200m Free
Men’s 200m Butterfly
Men’s 200m Free
Men’s 4 x 100m Free
Men’s 400m Medley
2 gold medals (2 world records) (2 individual events, 1 or 2 upcoming team events)
Bolt will most likely run on Jamaica’s 4×100 team, which is favored for a gold or silver medal.
1. Physical toughness of sport – I ran the sprints in high school, and the training for it is pretty straightforward. A lot of one-event-up training for endurance. For example, if you are training for the 100m, you run a lot of 200m and 400m wind-sprints. You also do a lot of leg work, like stadium stairs, stretching and form. Reaction time training is a must to get good starts off the blocks. In the end, it mostly comes down to natural ability plus endurance training and diet. Training will increase your times, but it is not as much of a factor as natural speed. Sprinters with “lanky” builds, such as Bolt and Carl Lewis, have made up for it with natural speed. When you finish a sprint, the body parts that are in pain are mainly your legs and heart. The arms and chest are secondary.
Swimming is a totally different story. It is a full body work out. Too much muscle will not lead to success. Too skinny will not either. Although natural ability does make a big difference, such as Phelps body frame, the sport definitely requires a harder training regimen. If you’ve ever tried to swim a couple of laps in the pool, you’ll know what I mean. When you finish a swim event, your entire body is in pain… from legs to arms to back to chest to head to heart.
2. Diversity of events – Phelps’ huge wingspan, feet size and body frame make him perfect for the butterfly event. It is also a big advantage in the freestyle. However, the wingspan appears to not be ideal for strokes such as the breaststroke and backstroke. Although he is ranked 11th in the backstroke, Phelps has not swam in either one in his 8 gold medal events. All have either been in the freestyle or butterfly. He also does not swim in events higher than the 200m. In looking at the butterfly and freestyle, they do require a completely different set of skills. The breathing technique is different, the body motion is different, thus stressing different muscles. However, the start of the race begins the same for both races.
Bolt is a natural 200m sprinter. In high school he ran in the 200m and 400m. It is not unusual for a 200m runner to add another event to his repertoire. If he is known to have good endurance, he might add the 400m. If he is known to have a quick start, he might add the 100m. Carl Lewis was a 100/200 runner and Michael Johnson was a 200/400 runner. No one has ever done a 100/400 pairing before. That wouldn’t make sense because of the attractiveness of the 200 for both 100m and 400m runners. There are only minor differences between the 100m and 200m races. The 100m requires a faster reaction time and quicker burst of speed. The 200m requires excellent turn running, fast finishing speed and a bit more endurance. However, both are still considered all-out sprints with no pacing. Most 100m sprinters also run the 200m at some point in their track careers.
3. Difficulty of reaching finals of events – For each event Bolt was in, there were 3 preliminary rounds and then the final, for a total of 8 races. Each round was on a separate day. The 200m race followed after the 100m final was over, and thus Bolt ran in 8 straight days. The 100m started with 80 sprinters, and the 200m started with 66 sprinters. The times of the prelims are not important, since part of the strategy is to make it to the next round while conserving energy.
Phelps, on the other hand, had a much tougher path to the finals. He had a total of 9 preliminary races to get to the 8 finals. The three relays did not have any prelims in which Phelps swam in. His teammates took care of that. Four of his 5 individual races had two rounds each of prelims. Only the 400m medley had one prelim round. Although Bolt’s races each had 3 prelims, none of his races were on the same day. Phelps 17 races spanned 8 days, with 2 days having one race, 3 days having two races, and 3 days having three races!
Edge: Strongly Phelps
4. Mental toughness required – This one is clearly for Phelps. With 17 races in 8 days. With all eyes on him, it requires the ability to completely focus on the task at hand, while shutting out all the distractions of the media, fans, other athletes, past races, future races, etc. It is unimaginable what he had to go through, pealing a layer off one by one. He must’ve felt a huge mountain on him heading into the Olympics. Bolt had no such pressure on him. Although there was some anticipation of a Tyson Gay – Asafa Powell – Usain Bolt 100m dream final, the pressure definitely was on Gay and Powell to perform. Powell was trying to eliminate the label of choker of big meets and reclaiming the world record that he lost to a pure 200m runner. Gay was trying to overcome his hamstring injury and to reclaim the US waning dominance in the 100m. Bolt had the world record and it was evident in the way he ran and showboated in the 100 that he felt no such pressure on him. Additionally, there just wasn’t that much media coverage of him until he easily broke the 100m record. The pressure he felt in the 200m is still nothing compared to what Phelps had to go through.
Edge: Strongly Phelps
5. Natural ability – This one is somewhat harder to determine. Although Bolt’s natural ability clearly has a profound impact on his performance, it is harder to determine how much of Phelps performance is due to natural ability instead of training. Swimming is more of a learned talent than running is. Although Phelps has an ideal body frame consisting of long arms, big feet, wide wing span and long torso, it’s hard to think he would be as good in swimming if he did not have the muscle and endurance from training. However, Bolt’s build might not be that different to normal athletes without Olympic training. His natural speed, height, quick long strides cannot really be learned in training.
In thinking about this area further, and reading Red’s comment below, I believe there is another component to think about when it comes to natural ability. What makes Bolt’s races so amazing is that he is only 21 years old and has not fully reached his natural potential. As he fills out his body both mentally and physically, it is scary to think what he can accomplish. Phelps appears to have reached his natural ability in this Olympics. Although the question of who had the greater Olympic achievement focuses on current results, the potential factor of the athlete has to be accounted for because of the WOW factor the public and media reacts to such achievements.Thus, I would have to give the edge of natural ability strongly in Bolt’s corner. He is still very raw.
Edge: Strongly Bolt
6. Walking the walk – Although many fans, media and other runners were clearly dismayed at Bolt’s showboating in the 100m final, I personally enjoy seeing that confidence and joy in track and field. I just wished he would have waited until he crossed the finish line. Not really because of the showboating, but because I wanted to see how fast he really could have ran. Blowing past the world record and other runners would have made a much bigger statement than showboating. I also have seen many races in the past where runners ease up too early only to be caught by other runners. However, Bolt clearly walked the walk. He seemed so relaxed and confident during all 8 races. He was clearly ahead of the rest of the field.
Phelps had a different story, however. At least two of his races were down to the wire, and not necessarily a lock for him to win. He clearly had to stay focused, and had no chance of celebrating. However, in the end, he walked the walk and accomplished something no one has ever done before.
Track and field requires a level of confidence and rivalry that borders on conceit. Swimming, however, is more of a fraternity. Where everyone respects each other and would never show up anyone else. It’s just two difference cultures, and neither is better than the other.
7. Any changes in sport that might increase performance – The biggest swimming story leading up to the Olympics, other than the athletes themselves, was the new Speedo’s LZR swimsuits. It was obvious they were making a big difference in the world of swimming. By reducing drag, and increasing aerodynamics, swimmers in all events were bettering their personal bests. Swimming is going through a major evolution, in terms of science and technology. Suits are better. Technical analyses are better.
Sprinting has had no such evolution. The closes thing to change in the past ten years has been the sneakers. Because the clothing of sprinters is so minimal, and because runners run straight into the wind, it is very difficult to increase aerodynamics. Swimming on the other hand cuts through the water horizontally, thus allowing improvements in friction and drag to be made.
In this rating, the less change in the sport the better. That means the athlete is more comparable to old world records.
8. Domination of world records – Let’s see the domination of Phelps’ and Bolt’s individual world records at the Olympics. We will only analyze individual world records, and not relay world records or Olympic records.
The metric we will use is something I call the record impact. Using the event’s 1990 record as the baseline (0%), and the most recent event record (even if held by Phelps or Bolt) as the topline (100%), how much did the the new record impact this record progression. The record impact is calculated as follows:
((2008 record – world record) / (1990 record – 2008 record)) * 100
Michael Phelps individual world records are based on long course 50m pools only
Phelps’ Average World Record Impact: 14.5%
Bolt’s Average World Record Impact: 9.9%
This is unfortunate for Bolt. His showboating costs him here. If he ran hard throughout the 100m final, he easily gets the edge here. To beat the 14.5% record impact of Phelps, all Bolt had to run was a 9.67. This was easily attainable had he not slowed down. If he ran a 9.62, as some have predicted he could have done had he not slowed down, his record impact would have been 50% for the 100m, and his average world record impact would have been a gaudy 27.5%, putting the edge strongly in Bolt’s favor. Quite unfortunate.
9. Quality of world record – Another thing to look at is how long the previous record was held before being broken in Beijing. If it was broken in Beijing prior to the final, such as in the preliminaries, we use the record prior to the Olympics. We also need to look at how many times the record has been broken since a certain baseline; we will use 1990 again. The final parameter to look at is how many people have held this record since the baseline.
An event that has a high quality of world record means it is difficult to break the world record, only a few athletes have had the world record since 1990, and that the last time it was broken was a while ago.
I calculate the quality of record as:
C – (A + B) = Years since 2008 record – (Unique athletes holding record since 1990 + Times record broken since 1990)
The higher the number the better the quality of the world record. Obviously this is not a scientific calculation.
Phelps’ Average Quality of Record: -14.5
That’s a funny coincidence that Phelps Quality of Record is the same as his Record Impact Percentage!
since 1990 (A)
since 1990 (B)
2008 record (C)
|Men’s 200m Final
Men’s 100m Final
Bolt’s Average Quality of Record: -4.5
The edge here is obviously in Bolt’s favor. The quality of breaking the 200m world record balances out the ever changing 100m world record. It is obvious that the swimming sprints are going through an evolution, even if a lot of the records are being broken only by Phelps and a select few colleagues, such as Crocker and Thorpe.
Edge: Strongly Bolt
So who wins the award as the greatest 2008 Olympic achievement? Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt?
Strongly Phelps = 2 * 2pts = 4
Phelps = 3 * 1pt = 3
Even = 1
Bolt = 1 * 1pt = 1
Strongly Bolt =2 * 2pts = 4
Final: Phelps 7, Bolt 5
Michael Phelps and his 8 gold medals (SI cover)
Winner: Michael Phelps
One interesting to realize here is that the showboating of Usain Bolt actually costs him this contest. As mentioned in the 8. Domination of World Records, if Bolt had not slowed down and ran a possible 9.62, we would move 1 pt from Phelps, and add 2 pts to Bolt. Then the final score is Bolt 7, Phelps 6. Even if Bolt runs between a 9.63 and 9.66, the edge is to Bolt, and the final score is Phelps 6, Bolt 6. Wow!!!!
What do you think?
My related Olympic posts:
Suggested Phelps vs Bolt webpage: