Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Beijing 2008: Men's 100 m Fly

Spitz is equalled: Phelps finds 0.62 s in 50 m to steal seventh gold

1/100th of a second. Such are the margins in the Olympic Games. And such was the difference between Michael Phelps winning his seventh gold, and claiming a silver in the 100m Butterfly. In one of the most incredible swimming races you'll ever see, Phelps was behind for 99.95 m of a 100m race, and managed, in the final 5cm, to jump ahead of Milorad Cavic of Serbia to equal Mark Spitz's performance from the 1972 Munich Olympics, and won his seventh gold medal of the Beijing Games.

The 100m Butterfly - Phelps' toughest challenge

Phelps was up against not only world-record holder and teammate Ian Crocker, but also Serbia's Milorad Cavic, who actually had the fastest qualifying time and therefore lined up in the coveted Lane 4. Phelps was right next to him in Lane 5. The tension was high, even watching on television. I had to wonder, "Would he crumble under the immense pressure?" I was waiting for a false start or similar error that would alleviate the pressure of trying to win the race---or avoid the disappointment of potentially losing.

It was a clean start, however, but Cavic was firing down the pool towards the first turn. Before the turn this was not necessarily a reason for Phelps fans to worry. After all, one of his biggest advantages seems to be his turns, and he always seems to come out ahead especially after the final turn of a race. Cavic blitzed the first 50m, turning first, but Phelps was a distant 0.64 s behind. The turn failed to narrow that gap significantly, as for once, Phelps did not produce one of his trademark turns, and this time it was Cavic who surfaced ahead of Phelps! And not just by a hair, but he appeared to have a commanding lead.

The finish - a fingertip, or less...

But surely Phelps would catch him down the stretch? At 25 m to go, Cavic was holding off Phelps and steaming ahead on his was to becoming the spolier. Even closer to the wall, Phelps was clawing his way back but it honestly did not look as though he had enough water to do it. And in the final stroke, Cavic made a telling error as he lunged for the wall a fraction early. As a result, Cavic reached for the wall under water, whereas Phelps managed to put in one more powerful stroke, ABOVE the water.

That made the difference, and while to the naked eye, it was too close to call, the electronic touch pad and timing system registered Phelps as the winner by a mere 0.01 s! If you view the slow-motion replay, you'll see how Cavic was gliding to the wall, under the water, and was perhaps 10cm from the touch, when Phelps made his final stroke. The slow-motion reveals how the gap, which must have been 20cm, was narrowed and then surpassed by Phelps - one stroke above the water, and 1/100th of a second, and Phelps took the lead in the final 5cm of the race!

You can do the math to work out how close that was---less than the length of finger tip, maybe?---but no matter how you count it, it was amazingly close.

But it ain't over until the Serbian woman sings

Shortly after the finish, however, Cavic and his coach filed a protest, that Cavic had in fact touched the wall, but with insufficient force to trigger the electronic timer. The protest went to a FINA committee and they made a expeditious ruling on it and upheld the result. Phelps kept gold and Cavic took silver.

When you're hot, you're hot

It is inexplicable how Phelps eked out the win. He was 0.64 s behind at halfway, and he did not appear to make up much time upon surfacing after the turn. Which effectively means that he pulled back the time over the remaining 35 m as they can stay underwater for no more than 15 m after the turn. Clearly Cavic was slowing down, as is the normal pacing strategy for his event - all the competitors swim a positive split.

Which brings us to the conclusion that perhaps it is just Phelps' time, and somehow luck is on his side so that in a race as close as this one, he comes out ahead although by the smallest of margins. This is actually a really interesting point about sporting performance, as we simply cannot explain these kinds of situations. Clearly the two athletes are matched closely in ability, motivation and fitness, yet the obvious statement is that only one of them can win. How do we know which one it will be? In races like these, the answer to that question remains a mystery.

Making a habit of close 100 m fly finishes?

So Phelps managed to squeak by Cavic by 0.01 s in Beijing this year, but if we turn back the clock and go to Athens four years ago, we see a similar race. The only difference was that instead of Cavic who came out firing and as leading at 50 m, it was Phelps' teammate (and world record-holder) Ian Crocker who surfaced after the turn with at least half a body length on Phelps. Again it came right down to the last five meters, and Phelps prevailed only by 0.04 s to take gold in Athens:

Beware the mythological physiology

One thing that we can be sure of though, is that as sports fans we must be careful not to portray Phelps as being a physiological superman. We saw this happen with Lance Armstrong where sports pundits and even Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin kept the myth alive by gushing about Armstrong's larger than normal heart, bigger than normal lungs, lower than normal lacate concentrations, and his remarkable weight loss after cancer. None of these characteristics were ever measured or proven, and in fact his "remarkable weight loss" was disproven in a scientific paper in which his weight was measured yearly both pre- and post-cancer, revealing that actually he weighed slightly more post-cancer.

The reality is that the usual explanations are completely unable to explain why one athlete is dominant - when you put these athletes in a lab, there is NOTHING that can be measured that proves why one athlete is superior to another. In cycling studies, for example, a Pro-Team will be measured, and the best guy is often the one with the smallest heart and lowest VO2max!

So is Michael Phelps a great athlete? Indeed. Does he train hard? Most certainly. Harder than his competitors? Perhaps, yes. Is he motivated? Maybe more than anyone else in the pool. But this speculation about how his toes are so long that they wrap around the starting blocks and give him an advantage? Or that he is double-jointed in his knees and that gives him a better dolphin kick? Or that his heart is extra large to pump blood (so are the other 7 guys', incidentally)?

Come on, people, let's keep it real here. Until those things are measured and shown to be true, let's just say he is a great athete with a strong will to win who so far has done everything right, including wearing a Speedo LZR Racer (and he has even been a bit lucky, too).

Quick Athletics wrap

The action on the track started on Friday, and you can read our post on the women's 10000 m final here. In other notable action it was the men's 100 m heats, and to no surprise we are on track for an epic show down between Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Tyson Gay (should his injured hamstring remain healthy). All three cruised through their respective heats, but no one made it look easier than Bolt. He won his heat in 9.92, s but in fact he had the race wrapped at 40-50 m, when you could see him glancing left and right to make sure he stayed ahead of the others.

That final is scheduled for Saturday at 10:30 PM Beijing time, so check your time zones now so you do not miss it!



Anonymous said...

Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete ever. Dominant in Fly, Free, and IM. He is truly a level above the worlds elite swimmers

Seb said...

You can do the math to work out how close that was

Sure, (0.01s/50.58s)*100m = slightly less than 2cm.

Does Phelps play classical guitar? Long fingernails can help at this level ;o)

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Seb,

Thanks for working out the distance for us! Even with a quick calculation like that it is probably pretty accurate, which adds to the amazement of it all---two cm! Less than one inch.

Phelps was remarkably lucky that it came together in the end. I mean, he was definitely going 110%, but he left absolutely no margin for error. And we are luckier as sports fans for getting to see such a race!

The superstitious fans might have something to say now about his attempt for eight golds---there was so much hype over this one post-race, the impression we are left with is that the final relay is a foregone conclusion. It's as if the sports casters and to some extent Phelps have assumed it is already in the bag.

The other thing the superstitious fans will say is that he has now "used up all his luck." Between the 4 x 100 m free and this race, surely will not get another break in these games?

Will be a race to watch and perhaps history in the making!

Kind Regards,

David Rowe said...

There's a superb sequence of photos of the finish from an underwater camera at the Sports Illustrated website.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi David

Thanks, that's a magnificent sequence. If we have the opportunity, we'll post on it for sure in the next few days!


Anonymous said...

Until those things are measured and shown to be true .....

Right but, he will never agree to be mesured ;-)
But what about his lower lactate values ? This is a sign of lesser exhaustion of muscle an this gives him an advantage in recration. So that nobody can compete in the same competitions as he does, also twice day!
Is he a Mutant concerning lactate values? Then we have a case of natural gene doping, like with the Afroamericans, that have faster muscle fibers than whitecolored athletes.