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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beijing 2008: Men's 200 m Fly and 4 x 200 m Free Finals

Four and Five - The Phelps Express steams ahead

Let me be the first to say that for two sports scientists so interested in endurance sports, we have never written so much about swimming! But it is history in the making in Beijing this year as Michael Phelps plowed ahead with gold medals numbers four and five in Beijing. In so doing, he has now won more gold medals than any other Olympian, in history. We look at his latest golds in a moment, but before that, perhaps the highlight of the day was the action in the men's 100 m freestyle, so let's take a look at that event first.

Swap meet of a different kind

Although much focus is on Phelps and his quest for eight golds, the men's 100 m free is shaping up to be one of the great races of the Games, as Australia's Eamonn Sullivan and France's Alain Bernard prepare for a showdown that surely will produce yet another record. In the first semi-final it was Bernard's turn to stamp some authority on the event. Recall that it was Bernard who was caught and beaten by Jason Lezak in the epic 4 x 100m relay two days ago. In that same race, he also lost his 100m Freestyle world record to Eamonn Sullivan - not a good outing all in all, and so he must feel a great desire to re-assert his status as number one.

In his semi-final, he did just that, as
he took back the world record by 0.04 s in what must have been a shot at some mind games before the final. His time 47.22, and a record that only two days earlier had stood at 47.50s was now down by 0.28s.

That was only the beginning, however, because in the
second semi-final, Sullivan came out to retake the record in 47.05! This year alone the record has fallen by 0.55 s (thank you, NASA and Speedo LZR Racer!), and if these two semis are any indication, either the Frenchman or the Aussie will be the first to break 47 s come Thursday as they fight for gold. There's also the presence of one Jason Lezak, who swam an astonishing 46.06 s in his relay leg, which was a full 0.6s faster than Bernard swam in that race. Somewhat surprisingly, he hasn't shown that kind of form, and is even down on his form from the US Trials five weeks ago, where he won the US title. He remains a threat, however, and has shown once that he can't be counted out.

A full analysis of the progression of that record might be in hand so that we might predict by how much it might fall in the final, but that will have to wait as we keep it coming and now turn to the men's 4 x 200 m freestyle.


China's lucky number of these games is 8/8/8, but so far Phelps is 5/5/8---five golds and five world records out of eight possible in total! Phelps started out the day with a gold, and a world record, in the 200 m fly. It might seem kind of "business as usual" at this point, except that at the end of the race Phelps was not as content as one might have expected, or certainly have seen in the previous victories. That may be because today was always going to be one of his toughest days - a 200m Butterfly final, followed by a medal ceremony, and then within 15 minutes, back in the pool to start off the 4 x 200m Freestyle relay. So perhaps Phelps' focus and "big picture" mindset was in play.

Of all his victories so far, this was the most controlled - it is testimony to the fact that he is so dominant that when he "only" broke the old world record by 0.06 s, it was noticeable! He was always in control, however, always on that world record pace, and perhaps the biggest surprise is that he was not alone, for early on, Moss Burmester from New Zealand in Lane 1 held Phelps by 0.5 s or less on the first three legs before losing 2.3 s in the homestretch. Unfortunately for him, he slipped back so dramatically that he fell off the podium altogether, and perhaps "deserved" something more. In the end, Phelps was comfortable, controlled, though not spectacular, but that might have been expected given the tough schedule he knew he'd be facing.

Men's 4 x 200 m Final. Another extra-ordinary performance: Are swimming world records meaningless?

Next on the agenda for Phelps was his second relay event, the 4 x 200 m freestyle final. The relays of course present a great threat to the quest for 8, because only 25% of the outcome lies in his sizeable hands. The 4 x 100m relay was spectacularly close, but the 4 x 200m, fortunately for Phelps, was not expected to be. It was always going to be a case of the margin of victory, rather than the question of victory, and so it turned out.

Phelps again lead off for his team, and rapidly built up a massive lead to hand over to Ryan Lochte, the second leg swimmer. The lead increased over the second leg, and by the time the third leg began, the USA was over 3 seconds under the old world record pace. Consider the time differences for each 200 m leg between the US men and second place at the time:

As has been the norm for the pool in Beijing, another world record was set, but this time the US men obliterated their prior record of 7:03.24 and dipped under seven minutes, swimming an astonishing 4.28 s faster and lowering the record to 6:58.56. Unlike in some other finals we have seen, no other team beat the previous record.

So the records continue to fall in the pool, including the women's 200 m freestyle and 200 m IM, where Frederica Pellegrini (ITA) and Stephaine Rice (AUS), respectively, took gold. The reality is that when a gold is won and the record is not broken, we feel disappointed. Swimming finds itself in something of an "artificial" situation, where world records are meaningless "tokens", though of course swimmers will not see it that way! However, it's worth looking at the difference between swimming and other world record sports, and that's an analysis for later today.

For the sake of length and time we will leave that analysis for now. We can start to look ahead to the end of the swimming phase of these games, though, and on to athletics, which actually gets underway this Friday. You can see a partial list of the events we will focus on here, so check that out and stay tuned for more insight into the incredible action in the pool.



Anonymous said...

I'm curious why there aren't as much suspicions of doping in swimming as there are in other sports. How reasonable is it for one person (Phelps) to be a) so much better than his competitors even though he is racing however many more races than the rest, and b) to keep breaking world record times? A half second improvement in a 47 second race is quite a lot!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI there

Good point. At least, it's worth bringing up that the same level of dominance in other sports would raise flags in a big way. I think to a large extent, the technology of the swimsuits has "suppressed" that debate, and people have instead become pre-occupied with the swimsuit technology.

The issue still exists, however. It doesn't, to me, explain why he's still so dominant over other swimmers, most of whom are US-based and therefore should have the same access to doping as he would have.

But more than this, when you watch the races, it seems to me that most of his advantage comes during the period under the water at each turn. I'd love to see the analysis (not even sure it's possible), but I would estimate that in a 200m race, he gains almost 1.5 to 2.0 seconds purely in those turn phases. That's technique and training, not doping. So maybe the big thing about swimming is that a 1% improvement in swimming efficiency equals a big improvement in performance, and the sport of swimming is still relatively "immature" as far as technology goes?

Who knows? But the swimmers are still subject to the same doping controls, though of course those are nowhere close to fool-proof. I still find it difficult to fathom that doping is providing an edge across so many different events when athletes have access to similar drugs. But it remains a possibiilty...


Unknown said...

I did notice that Phelps did not wear the full suit (only the pants) during the Fly. Is that a function of confidence or is the suit possibly constricting in that specific stroke? It leads me to also ask how much of the improvement attributed to the suits is placebo, 25%, 50%?

Andrew said...

Hey guys,
While there has been a great amount of discussion surrounding the new suits, have you noticed that some of the swimmers dont wear caps? Specifically, I noticed Laszlo Chez (among a couple of others) who was 2nd in the 200 fly and 400 IM did not wear a swim cap. All of the top US swimmers, on the other hand, seem to have two caps with the outer one being thicker and very smooth which I'm assuming causes it to have a lower drag coefficient. I know in cycling aero helmets make a huge difference so do you think the caps make much of a difference? My thought is that they are not as significant as the helmets but at the same time they must provide some advantage...

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi MIke

My understanding of it (from swimming experts and no less a source than Mark Spitz in an article someone sent me), is that at a certain speed, the benefits become less meaningful, which makes sense because if the suit is reducing drag, then the drag will be greater at higher speeds - I won't claim to know the exact relationship, but usually it's a cubic or squared one, where the resistance increases exponentially with swimming speed.

Also, I think it's important to bear in mind that the suit was developed with particular focus on the underwater phase of the swim, and perhaps with butterfly, where the body leaves the water far more often, that benefit is minimized. That is conjecture though...

As for the placebo effect, certainly a valid point. Impossible to assess, however, although someone should do that study after the Games and try to compare the Speedo to other costumes, also tight fitting, but without those panels that supposedly make it drag-free.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous, and thanks for the comment and question about doping in swimming.

You have asked a valid question. Ross has mentioned the technology of swimming as a reason for these improvements, and certainly this is part of it and can likely account for much of the improved performances.

I would like to make the point that Phelps is turning into a rock star fairy tale in a similar way Lance Armstrong did after cancer. Lay press articles write about his 6'4" height and 6'7" "wingspan" in addition to other characteristics that are meant to make him the absolutely best swimmer of all time. . .therefore it is no wonder he is beating everyone.

So my point is that you are correct to be skeptical and raise questions. The problem is that the public get wrapped up in what the press reports, i.e. his superior anatomical characteristics, as well as the hype and "feel good" aspect of him chasing this dream of eight golds.

Again, the similarity to Lance Armstrong---his improvements in performance after cancer and his performances during his seven post-cancer tours suggest he was doping, but I will be the first to tell you that even as a PhD student in sports science at the time of his first few victories, I was captivated by his story, his performances, and was reading his books with great interest. I was a fan and rooted for him each successive year as he pummeled his competitors.

And in the case of Armstrong, doping allegations were "explained away" by counter-allegations of superior preparation, commitment, team, and talent, not to mention that myths of his physiology.

To clarify, I am not saying Phelps is doping, and in fact I do not know enough about swimming to de-construct all the possibilities regarding his mechanics and strokes. But I agree with your skepticism, and only time will tell (or maybe not!) what is the real story of his eight gold medals!

Kind Regards,