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Monday, August 11, 2008

Beijing: 4 x 100m Freestyle

Jason Lezak rescues Gold for USA, and keeps Phelps' quest alive

Well, we wrote yesterday that Michael Phelps' quest to beat Mark Spitz' record by winning eight gold medals would face perhaps its most serious test in a relay event. Turned out that it nearly faltered at only the second hurdle, where the French 4 x 100m relay team took the USA on in what is perhaps the best race of the Games so far, if not one of the great relay races of all time.

There was a 4 x 100m relay race at the Sydney Olympic Games, where Ian Thorpe of Australia overhauled Gary Hall of the USA to claim a home-gold medal. This time, in Beijing, it was the turn of the USA to do the come-from-behind triumph, as Jason Lezak miraculously managed to haul back a 0.58 second deficit over the world record holder in the final 100m, to win the gold and keep alive Phelps' chances of eight golds.

The race: How it unfolded

It was a magnificent race, with six teams breaking the world record from before the Olympic Games (five actually went under the time set by the USA B-team the day before in qualifying!). Every single team swam faster than the WINNING time from the Athens Olympic final, and the USA and France both took an incredible 4 seconds of the best ever mark! If ever an advertisement for swimming progression existed, this was it. Can anyone honestly still believe that the swim-suits don't make an impact on performance?

But performance records aside, it was the RACE that was perhaps the most amazing of all. The graph below illustrates the gap between the USA and France, who were always going to be the teams to smash it out for gold. It also shows the splits for each swimmer, with the USA in blue, France in red.

You can see that Michael Phelps, who lead off for the USA, put them 0.4 seconds clear, a lead that was marginally increased by Weber-Gale.

Then things started to go wrong for the USA. Cullen Jones, their third swimmer, was caught and then passed by a flying Frederick Bosquet, who in the qualifiers had swum the fastest ever relay leg. On this occasion, he swam an incredible 46.73 seconds, and by the time 300m had been swum, it was France who were 0.59 seconds AHEAD of the USA.

Considering that the French were going to be anchored by Alain Bernard, the World-record holder in the event, the outcome seemed decided - the world record holder would never surrender 0.59 seconds, and France would deliver on Bernard's earlier promise to "smash the Americans". Nobody told Jason Lezak that. Lezak, the USA's fastest 100m swimmer, produced what must rank as one of the great 100m swims, and he beat Bernard by 0.08 seconds on the touch!

The split timing revealed that Lezak's time over that final leg was an astonishing 46.06 seconds! The world record, incidentally, stood at 47.50 seconds before the race. In a relay, only the first swimmer can break that world record, because of the "rolling start" concept, where a swimmer is faster off the blocks during the change-over than in response to the starting siren. However, it's worth noting that Eamonn Sullivan of Australia actually broke the world record in this race - he did the first leg in 47.24 seconds, a massive improvement of 0.26 seconds, almost lost in the drama of that final leg.

That final leg split of 46.06 seconds by Lezak is the fastest ever recorded. Even taking into account the faster reaction times - it seems that the difference is about 0.7 seconds - Lezak, Sullivan, Bosquet and Bernard are all going to smash that record. The "relay syndrome" may however strike, and it is one of the less explainable phenomena that sometimes, you find athletes who are incredible in the relays but fail to deliver in the individual races (or vice versa, for that matter). Time will tell, but the 100m freestyle will an incredible race to watch...

But for now, Lezak will be the hero in the American camp. Michael Phelps must have watched on in horror as Frederick Bosquet managed to turn a 0.43 second deficit to a 0.59 second advantage over Cullen Jones, but Lezak saved the day for him and the team. For Phelps, the next challenge is the 200m freestyle final tomorrow morning, where he'll go for gold number 3. He'll be hoping for a little less drama, because Gold number 2 might just be the most dramatic he'll ever win.



Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to make a tally, after the Games are over, of world records broken by swimmers wearing Speedo LZR versus the other swimsuit brands.

As a regular (passionate is a better word) reader of your blog I know you already published a number of posts about this new technology back in March, however a sequel would be really nice.


Colenso said...

Superb analysis, as always, and a very exciting account of a very exciting race, which I missed watching (as usual).

If ever you tire of sports science Ross, I have no doubt you will be able to forge a brilliant career as a sports writer. (Just remember to omit those unneeded apostrophes - eg 1930s, not 1930's!)

Anonymous said...

As someone almost old enough to remember Mark Spitz (who was featured heavily in the Ladybird Book Of Swimming I had!) - why is it that he managed to look *normal*?

Phelps, Thorpe - I look at them and go, "Yikes!". But is it just that BIG guys - I don't know - *didn't* (or couldn't) swim (competitively) in the late 60s/early 70s?
Or what?

- middle aged mid packer

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi George

Sure, absolutely. I'm sure it will be done and we'll definitely report on it - it's difficult to tally from just watching at the Games, but I'm thinking a "medal table" of sorts, showing gold, silver and bronze to the different costume makers will be interesting... of course, it's all skewed by the fact that almost all the good swimmers have switched to Speedo by now! But nevertheless, we'll look at it for sure!

Thanks as always for the support and passionate following!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Colenso

Thank you, that's very kind! Even the correction of my apostrophe error - I'll make a note from now on!

I wish I could write sports journalism, but the science will never be far from it - that's what I've always felt the sports media needed (it was a big part of the reason we started this site!)

Thanks for the support!


Anonymous said...

The reality of the matter is that the SA guys could improve by 0.5 of a sec & the french and americans by 5 seconds within the 4 year Olympic cycle!!! Intersting thought!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Yes, indeed. That is telling. I guess in sport, you can only interpret performance in the context of what everyone else is doing. Here in SA, the swimmers have been defending themselves by saying that they have improved since 2004. The problem, as you point out, is that their improvement is miniscule compared to that of the rest of the world....which must mean something has gone wrong here!

One would argue that a 0.5sec improvement might even represent a deterioration, given the addition of the swimsuits which seem to be taking seconds off times! We'll never know, which is one side effect of the swimsuit technology war!

THanks for the comments!


Alan said...

On the final leg of the relay, Bernard (mistakenly) swam a little too close to the US's lane allowing Lezak (who swam right along the lane rope) the opportunity to draft off the French swimmer for 80 odd meters opening the possibility of him accelerating past.

Just as in cycling, drafting in swimming is a huge energy saver!

Smart tactics in a super high pressure situation.