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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Olympic Oscars

Looking back on the Games - "Olympic Oscars". The winner is....

It’s been one week since the Olympics, and a slow week here at The Science of Sport (as I try to catch up on time lost to the Games, mostly!). For today, though, to begin a Post-Olympic wrap, I thought I’d do a “Best of” (and worst of) list from Beijing. So here are the “Olympic Oscars”.

Best athlete

It’s a straight shoot-out between Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt on this one. Phelps was always going to be the biggest story of the Games, because even an “average” performance was going to see him surpass the record for most gold medals in history (which was 11 going in – Phelps was already on 6). As it turned out, he delivered on ALL the expectation, and won eight out of eight events, for an unprecedented medal haul in a single Olympic Games. By the time he’d won his fifth gold, he was already equal at the top of all-time gold medalists. He then added a further three, and with London to come (and who knows, maybe 2016?), he could well finish his career with twice as many golds as the next best person!

So, when we one day look back at the Greatest Olympians ever, Phelps is sure to be a name on everyone’s list. However, for Beijing, we’ll give the “Best athlete” prize to Usain Bolt. It reveals our bias slightly (we’re running fans more than swimming fans), but Bolt gets the nod ahead of Phelps because his performance was less expected, I dare say more spectacular, yet just as unprecedented. No one in history had ever won the 100m and 200m titles in world records. Bolt did both, and then capped it off with a third world record in the 4 x 100m relay. It was a Jesse-Owens like performance, and the manner of victory was what made it so spectacular. A demolition job in the 100m, featuring a celebration DURING the race and still a world record, and then breaking Michael Johnson’s legendary 200m world record, were probably two of the five highlights of the Games. Michael Phelps also broke world records – four individual and three team records, but given that swimming records fall just about as frequently as night follows day, I don’t think it’s quite as meaningful (more on swimming in future posts.).

Bolt still has a way to go to add “longevity” to his CV, and he will look to London 2012 and a repeat of the double to do that – if he succeeds then he’ll surely be recognized universally as the greatest sprinter ever. For now, he has the greatest sprint Olympics ever seen behind him. He energized the second week of the Games, and gets our nod as the “Athlete of the Games”.

Best team

I guess the “nominees” in this category are Jamaica, China, the USA and Kenya, each of which has some claim to call Beijing successful. Our pick is the Jamaicans, because for such a small island to have so comprehensively dominated a group of events is an amazing result. When we do our analysis of the medal table, you'll see that they top the charts in terms of success per PERSON.

They also get the prize because their success inspired one of our most controversial and widely discussed posts yet, when we tried to discuss Usain Bolt’s meteoric rise. In that post, we said how astonishing it was for Jamaica to have swept the four short sprints, including a clean sweep of the medals in the women’s 100m, and asked the inevitable question re doping. Had they not dropped the baton in the women’s 4 x 100m relay, they may well have won every sprint title. Add to that a women’s 400m hurdles title and it’s a never-seen-before dominance of the sprint events. Their success denied the USA a sprint title of any kind for the first time in the Olympic Games.

In response to our post, in which I wrote that their success will automatically raise questions regarding doping, we received some indignant, very offended emails from people who accused us of all kinds of ill-intentions. It’s still amusing to me to read the tone of those comments, because people get so indignant and are completely incapable of appreciating that at the very least, a discussion of doping is inevitable in a sport where success without doping is about as rare as South African medals at the Games! The most common argument in defence of Jamaica is that they have always produced great sprinters, and a few people accused me of lacking knowledge or appreciation of the history of sprinting (one even asked whether I’d ever heard of Merlene Ottey).

I must just make the point that while it is true that Jamaica has a rich heritage of great sprinters, what we have witnessed in Beijing is unprecedented, and not part of a normal sequence of historically good performances. Three world records, the fastest time in the last 10 years in the women’s 200m (since Marion Jones, that is), and an Olympic record in the 400m Hurdles. That’s not just part of a “long history”, that’s an explosion in performance! The celebration in Jamaica is testament to that very fact – Beijing 2008 cannot simply be explained away as the result of anti-doping in the USA, it’s more than that. And the debate exists merely to understand where that success comes from. But it was a spectacular sprinting performance, the highlight of the Games, and for that Jamaica is probably the nation with the most to celebrate post-Beijing.

Special mention to China, who we’ll discuss a lot more in our upcoming analysis of the medal table. I think it’s easy to dismiss China’s achievements as the inevitable consequence of having the world’s largest population to choose from. But when you look a little more closely at it, you realize that in fact, they succeeded because they invested very intelligently in their athletes. The medal tables from the last three Games makes for interesting reading, but we won’t give the game away here, but rather say to check in next week for the medal discussion!

Kenya also had their best ever Games, helped in large part by their women – the 800m and 1500m titles, as well as silver over 800m, marks the emergence of Kenyan women in middle distance events. Their men also won the 800m title, the Steeplechase (as always) and won their first marathon. It was, on the whole, an excellent Games for Kenya, and barring Bekele and Dibaba of Ethiopia, they will be satisfied with the health of the nation’s distance runners.

Most under-rated performance

There were so many magnificent performances in Beijing that it’s quite easy to see how some special results did not receive the focus they deserved. For one thing, we had two distance doubles on the track – Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba won the 5000m-10000m double, but were somewhat under-appreciated (not by the distance community, however) thanks to Bolt’s brilliant running.

However, our award for the single performance that was perhaps least discussed is that of Dayron Robles in the hurdles. Robles won the race in 12.93, but looked so comfortable and “conservative” that it was really a procession. If there was a category for “Biggest let-down of the Games”, then this race would receive it, because Liu Xiang’s withdrawal due to injury robbed us of a potentially epic clash. However, unless Liu had been 100% healthy, he’d have been struggling along with the rest of the world in Robles’ wake. Robles would have seen LoLo Jones smash hurdle 9 the night before, and lose the gold medal – a stark reminder of how fickle hurdles can be. Perhaps he took a “conservative” line into the race, but he ran sub-13s looking almost complacent, and he’s the undisputed number 1 now.

Best race of the Games

The best race of the Games comes from the pool, where Michael Phelps almost had his quest for 8 derailed by a very unlikely source. It came in Phelps’ weakest event, the 100m butterfly, which is the only one of his events where he is not the world record holder. That title belongs to Ian Crocker, but it was not Crocker who almost spoiled this particular party. Rather, it was Milorad Cavic of Serbia, who broke the Olympic record in both his qualifying races and swam in lane 4 alongside Phelps.

I’m sure that most of you are aware of how the race developed – Cavic was well ahead at the turn, and seemed to be holding that lead coming into the final 20m. Phelps was closing very gradually, but Cavic really did look to have the race won with only 5 m to go. He led for 99.90m of the 100m race, but at the end, thanks to one final stroke that Phelps managed to squeeze in before the wall, he was able to touch, 1/100th of a second ahead of Cavic. In slow motion replays, it seems impossible that Phelps had done it. The Serbs protested, and conspiracy theories began – it was rigged, they said, as though “real-time” rigging of something was possible to that extent – the stadium timing system registered Phelps as touching first by 1/100th of a second within 3 seconds of the finish – if that was rigged, then technology really is incredible! Had it gone to a photo finish, with a lengthy process of deliberation, then I might have had time for such theories!

However, the electronic system didn’t lie – Cavic reached for the wall from about 2m out, and Phelps got one last stroke in, and the gold was his. It was number 7, and the medley relay completed the 8. But this was the race that nearly cost him his unique place at the head of the tree.

Honorable mention to another event involving Phelps, though he was not the star of the race – the men’s 4 x 100m Freestyle relay featured the USA vs France in a race for the world record. In the end, Jason Lezak produced the relay swim of the century to close down a 0.62 second gap on the world record holder, Alain Bernard of France, and give the USA the title. The top 6 teams all broke the world record from before Beijing, but the incredible final leg, where Lezak closed down a full body length on the world record holder (who would go on to become the Olympic champion) was extra-ordinary.

That’s it for this wrap-up. More to come in tomorrow’s post, with a few more “Olympic Awards” to give out!

Join us then!


Anonymous said...

Nah. Best race of the games was the women's 400m freestyle. (Relatively) unknown 19 year old from Mansfield overhauls the hot favourite in the last few strokes to take gold, beating the Athens gold medal winner and the world record holder as well.


Unknown said...

Surprised you didn't comment on the triathlon, being endurance sports fans... Here in Canada the mens triathlon drew the highest ratings of the games and served up plenty of drama.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Rob

Fair enough, one of the more "unexpected" medals. And she went on to break the oldest record in swimming too...an unheralded athlete in the category of Robles, perhaps?

The Joel, you have a point. It's the weirdest thing - we cover running, we cover cycling, and we do swimming, but we've never, for some reason tackled Triathlon. And it's not because we don't follow it, it's just kind of fallen through the cracks every time. How many times I've had a post in mind about triathlon and just never gotten round to it, I don't know!

But certainly, we must discuss it in the future. Part of it, I guess, is access to media on it. We have a TV channel over here that airs highlights of the ITU race, and of course we have local races, but I think Triathlon has largely been positioned as a "mass sport" (which it certainly is for - fitness and health), and it's never really hit the elite market. So I'm going to blame TV coverage, but also promise that it's something we have to look at in the future. I know a lot of readers are triathlon fans, so it's a must!


Trihardist said...

I agree with Joel. I would like to nominate Emma Snowsill for a Most Effective Training Plan award. The women's race was the highlight of the games going in (for me), because I was curious to see if anyone had the heart to outrun Vanessa Fernandes. Not only did Snowsill have the heart, she had the legs; once out of T2, Fernandes never even came close to Snowsill.

But you guys do a phenomenal job covering the science of the Olympics. I know that the full race is available online here in the U.S. Perhaps you can finagle your way into accessing it at NBCOlympics.com?

Anonymous said...

It's been pointed out by one of the coaches here in Oz that they should have used a photo finish in the 100 butterfly. As they touch the wall, Phelps is shown applying pressure to the touch pad with one hand. Butterfly rules stipulate that both hands must hit the wall at the same time (can't remember the rule number quoted). A little bit of "luck" for Phelps?

Anonymous said...

Regarding getting the most gold medals, don't swimmers have an unusual advantage simply due to the number of events they can compete in?

If they added the 100m skip, and the 100m hop, and the 100m jump, and some 400m hop, skip, jump, and sprint medleys, perhaps athletes like Bolt could compete in 8 events too. Otherwise, Bolt has to repeat his phenomenal performance for another 3 Olympics in order to get 12 golds, and surpass Michael Phelps' 11. And Michael's not finished.


Kevin Hughes said...

In awarding your "Best Athlete" award, you considered the best swimmer and the best sprinter, but you left out the best athlete. Please review the decathlon results and re-consider.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Kevin

Nope, already considered the decathletes, and it still goes to Bolt, then Phelps, with Bekele and Dibaba close behind. I appreciate the ability of the decathletes, but I also recognize that to get to that level in a single sport is so difficult to do, the curve is exponential - to go from a 10.00s to a 9.90s takes ten times the work it does to get from 10.1s to 10.0s. So by the time you get down to 9.70, you're exceptional. No one in history has come close to what either Bolt or Phelps achieved, every Games, every World Champs, someone wins the decathlon.

So I don't believe the hype around "best athlete in the world". Best ALL-ROUND athlete, or maybe most "complete" athlete, yes, but "BEST" is reserved for the spectacular performances of Bolt, Phelps and co.


tim newman said...

i think maybe you should do an article on sportmanship guys...the Olympic Oscars, for me, go to, without doubt, the many and varied performances by several women's soccer teams, and to a lesser extent, their male counterparts. Watching an "athlete" feign body contact, then hit the ground, writhing in what appears to be such severe pain that it could only be rivalled by childbirth or kidney stones, then having the game stopped to allow a full medical team come on the pitch to stretcher the injured player off, THEN watch in amazement as that very same player actually gets off the stretcher unaided, does a few side bends, then is seen "jogging around" and "jumping up and down", only to be immediately subbed back on is an absolute disgrace to sport. Video replays show the severity of any contact made- many showing complete absence of contact..and of the contact made its more times than not directly against the shin guards and with little force...

it makes me so angry to see this and i had to change the TV channel away from soccer...it actually only reinforces my belief that soccer is a sport for losers- im sorry to offend but as long as this goes on then itll never rate on my book.

anyways...i dont think ive seen it to the same level as the women's soccer at beijing 2008. ive seen it before in many european games..but this took the cake.

the officials and soccer body should look at this IMO. It's a blight on the game..and the spirit of the olympics.