Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Olympics Have Finally Begun

I, like billions of men everywhere in the world, enjoyed watching Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh bounce around in the sand towards gold. There is some sense of awe, watching the Chinese men's gymnastics team twirl about on the pommel horse, and watching the tension on the faces of the Chinese middle school gymnastics team as they try to take on Americans twice their age. But I haven't watched a single minute of this year's Dream Team, and I probably won't until the medal rounds. I don't intend to watch any of the Olympic baseball tournament, because with their silly rules and inferior level of competition, I'll take Bud Selig's money-grubbing World Cup of Baseball any day. To me, the Summer Olympics doesn't really begin until the very fast people with tiny shorts and weightless shoes fill the screen. To me, Track and Field is the Summer Olympics.

Yes, the story of the Olympics so far has been Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals, one for each thousand calories he ingests each day. But look at the events he starred in: 200 m free, 200 m butterfly, 100 m butterfly, a couple medleys, and a bunch of relays. Essentially, Phelps is the master of swimming very fast over a short distance using a number of different styles. Also, he has very fast teammates. So, good for him, it's never been done before and he should be championed.

To me, though, it would be like if in addition to the 100 m dash, there was the also the 100 m skip, the 100 m backwards run, and the 100 m hop-on-one-foot. If there was as much variation over the same distances in track as there is in swimming, I assure you that many track athletes would rack up the medals like Spitz and Phelps. Instead, you have a sport where each race, up until about 3000 m, is different from races shorter and longer. At 100 m, the race is about acceleration; at 200 m it's about maintaining top speed for as long as possible; at 400 m the stride phase is elongated and race strategy is necessary. At higher distances, the strategy becomes akin to that of horse-racing: runners must plan when to use their bursts of energy, and when to draft behind another runner. Thus it is the ability to see the other competitors clearly sets it apart from swimming because psychology becomes important.

The sexiest track race used to be the mile-run. That race doesn't even exist anymore, and has been replaced by the 1500 m run (metric mile). Bejing organizers have placed this race near the end of the competition, for the women on August 23, when we at the Immaculate Inning will be following the contest closely. These days, the top money in track goes to the 100 m dash, which has already been contested over in China. The top American athlete in the event, Tyson Gay, injured himself trying to qualify for the 200 m dash at the US Olympic Trials. His injury was clearly a factor as he finished fifth in the semifinal and did not compete for the gold. Instead, the 100 m dash glory belonged to the Jamaicans.

Usain Bolt is just about the best name for a sprinter anyone could imagine, and the man who specializes in the 200 m distance set a new world record in the shorter. It's likely he could have gone even faster, as one could drive a truck between Bolt and silver medalist Richard Tompson of Trinidad. What's significant, if you watch the replay, is that Bolt was pretty even with the other competitors about halfway through this race. That's because, as a 200 m runner, Bolt's specialty is top speed. While other runners are still accelerating, Bolt has already peaked. NBC also has a slow-motion replay focusing on all 43 of Bolt's steps. After taking about 12 strides to reach full speed, Bolt looks to his right on stride #34, and the clock reads 8.8 seconds behind him. He slows, raises his hands, and pounds his chest as 9.68 flashes on the clock. Afterward, he seemed more concerned with winning the gold instead of world records. But I believe his 100 m dash shows he has the potential to claim the title of fastest man in history.

You see, despite the sexy title of "Fastest Man in the World," given to the current record-holder in the 100 m dash, the fastest speed any human has ever moved under his own power was not in a race of that distance. It was Michael Johnson, running the 200 m dash at the 1996 Olympics, in 19.32 seconds. In fact, Bolt's winning margin reminded me a lot of this race; take a look here. Johnson's average speed would be 10.352 m/s, or 23.17 miles per hour. While a reliable measure of his peak speed does not exist, models predict that he achieved 11.6 m/s in the middle of the race. This would be slower than the actual measured time of Maurice Greene and Donovan Bailey in the 1997 World Championships, both clocked by computer at 11.8 m/s during the 100m dash. Still, the fact that the world record average speed over 100 meters is slower than the world record average speed over 200 meters is amazing.

In addition, Johnson broke the longest standing track record in history when he ran 19.32 in Atlanta. Is it possible that Bolt could break Johnson's record; perhaps as soon as this Wednesday in Bejing? Michael Johnson himself, now a track commentator for BBC, was giddy watching Bolt run the 100m dash. "Michael Phelps? "Michael who?" at this point, and deservedly so...." said Johnson after the race. It is certainly possible that Bolt could have eclipsed 9.66 in the dash, which would beat Johnson's average speed record. Bolt has a personal best of 19.67 in the 200m dash, run earlier this year, and the fifth fastest time ever.

So my eyes will be glued to the screen on Wednesday at 10:20 AM EDT for the 200 m finals, hoping to watch history. Yes, the Olympics have now truly begun.

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