Bolt & Phelps

Bolt vs Phelps

J. Schmidhuber, August 20-26, 2016

Usain Bolt, a sprinter, is the fastest man ever. Michael Phelps, a swimmer, is the most decorated Olympian ever. Both focus on races over 100m and 200m. Is it possible to compare them?

Swimming offers many more opportunities to win gold medals. There is only one gold medal for 100m sprint, but there are four golds for 100m swimming: one for freestyle, three for suboptimal swimming styles such as butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke (at many Olympics, some were won by the same person).

This is akin to having four different 100m sprint events, three of them with suboptimal running styles, such as hopping, or running backwards. (The quite unrelated 110m hurdles is about the fastest way of overcoming obstacles, not about suboptimal sprinting.)

Similar for 200m, where there are no less than four (!) suboptimal swimming styles, one of them actually a mixture of styles. To summarise, there are only two gold medals for 100m & 200m sprinting, but nine for 100m & 200m swimming, seven of them for suboptimal techniques.

Phelps got 23 gold medals, all but one for suboptimal swimming styles or for team events with his comrades. Only once (in 2008) he got gold as the truly fastest (freestyle) swimmer over 200m. He never was the fastest over 100m or 50m or other distances. That is, without team events and suboptimal swimming styles, Phelps would have only one single gold. (Mark Spitz, another great swimmer, would have 2 instead of 9.)

Bolt got 9 gold medals, 6 for being the fastest man over 100m and 200m (2008, 2012, 2016), the others for team events.

Any gold medal is a great achievement, but it is easier to be #1 in a sport where there is less competition due to fewer active athletes, such as "women weightlifting 49kg-53kg" or "swimming 4x100 individual medley." In fact, most people on this planet cannot swim at all, leave alone executing special styles such as butterfly. On the other hand, every kid runs against other kids. Bolt's sport is the most elementary, the essential sport of mankind, central to the Olympics. Despite the enormous competition, he improved the 100m world record by the largest margin since the start of precise timing.

Why are there so many more gold medals for swimming? The Ancient Olympics did not have any swimming events. Most swimming competitions were introduced to the Olympics in the second half of the 20th century during the Cold War, especially in the 1960s. In 1952, none of the 5 events in which Phelps later won 13 individual gold medals even existed (and only 1 of the 3 team events in which Phelps later won 10 golds).

Male athletics, however, has not grown at all since then, and actually shrunk since 1928; the classic sprint events of track and field (100m, 200m) have co-existed since 1900. Apparently nobody has ever tried to introduce suboptimal sprinting techniques (except for Monty Python).

Swimming is dominated by white guys, sprinting by black guys. Does the recent medal inflation in swimming reflect that white guys have had more influence on the IOC which can add sports to the Olympic program?

More thoughts on related issues in this London Olympics Gold Medal Count of 2012, which also lists the most successful athletes who won at least 3.3% of all gold medals at their Summer Games.