Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The 100 Meter Dash

Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News sums up a good deal of what I feel about Usain Bolt's incredible race for history vis a vis Michael Phelps -- not that it is a zero-sum game -- in this column. A sample:
Everybody runs.
Not everybody swims.

It's that simple.

You marvel at Michael Phelps, Mr. Olympics 2008, Mr. Olympics for all time.

You identify with Usain Bolt, the Fastest Man Ever.

Phelps, an American, obliterated records in five solo swims here. His eight gold medals, a probability achieved, made him a safe and simple face with which to brand these Games, the new Mark Spitz. His 14 career golds vaporized the old mark by five.

But not everybody swims. Certainly, not everybody swims well, and virtually nobody swims more than one stroke, maybe two.

But everybody runs.

Bolt, a Jamaican, on Saturday morning ran the most significant race in Olympic history.

He lowered the 100-meter world record he unexpectedly set in May by 0.03 seconds.

Everybody has run. You start when you're about a year old. Eventually, everybody runs 100 yards or meters: in gym class, training for some sport, from parents or the boogeyman.

Because everybody runs, the case can quite easily be made that Usain Bolt categorically won the singular sporting event, running faster than anyone else ever has (without the aid of wind), that every other person on earth with the physical capability has tried. He won the most competitive sporting endeavor there is. He ran the single event that is elemental to nearly all (land-based) sports.

I'm reminded again of a Farleyism I am sure I have shared with you in the past. Dick Farley was the college football hall of fame football coach at Williams. Before he took the head gridiron job, he was the Williams head track coach, and after that he became an assistant with the team, a position he still holds. Farley was legendary for his witticisms, most notably for his bon mots, his "Farleyisms" (so dubbed by us, not by him). My favorite probably was his constant rejoinder to us, and especially to his football players, "you're only here because there is no division 4." One time at a meet at UMass he was coaching me up between triple jumps. The 5000 meter runners were huffing their way through that race and he simply asked me, rhetorically of course, "would any of these guys be doing this if they could run the hundred?" That sums it up in a nutshell.


Jaime said...

Sorry, but I must disagree. Not everyone runs. Have you seen how many fat kids there are in the post modern world? And certainly there are more fat adults? No, they don't run. And then there is the issue of where can a fast guy go to making a living. He can play football, soccer, baseball (although less so today than say 50 years ago, i.e. Jackie Robinson) and, maybe even basketball. Track to football is not an option anymore or never was unless we all remember Bob Hayes. Ronaldo Nehemiah could not do it. Where can a fast swimmer go to make a living? Even ice skaters get have more options than swimmers, i.e Disney on Ice.

dcat said...

Jaime --
The evidence contradicts you. Let's take a look:

In the most recent assessment of NCAA and the national high school athletics federations:

NCAA Track and field (outdoors): 22,000
High school track & field: 533,985
Total: 553,985

NCAA swimming: 7,500
High school swimming: 107, 468
Total: 114,900

NCAA T&F (outdoors): 20,000
High school t&f: 439,200
Total: 459, 200

NCAA swimming: 10,750
High school swimming: 147, 413
Total: 158, 163

Track and field (outdoors): 1,013,185
Swimming: 273,063

There are actually a lot of track guys in the NFL right now and there always are. None with the fame of Hayes or Nehemiah (who never starred in the NFL, but he did average 17.5 yards a catch and made 43 receptions -- would that we all could fail like that at a sport we picked up on a lark). The Cowboys have a receiver in camp this year who was a track guy. Sure -- athletes choose at the highest level, but that just reinforces how awesome it is to win the 100 -- all those guys have run.

And the fat kids don't run enough, but they've all run at some point, and in any case, if they have not run they also have not been tearing down the lanes in the pool.


Jaime said...

Comparing the number of swimmers to track and field is a good start on the surface. But have you seen some of those shot putters? I think I could beat them on a track or in a pool. But on a global scale, and Bolt is not an American although he may have run for a college in the US, the statistics must include the number of soccer players. If he was born in England or Spain, he may have never run track because at the age of 12 he may have been signed on to a soccer club.

I guess we differ in that I simply am not as impressed by the fastest man alive in 2008 as much as I am impressed by a guy who said he would be first 8 times out of 8.

dcat said...

Jaime --
Oh, no doubt -- the fact that he went 8 for 8 after clearly making it his objective is awesome. No oubt -- his accomplishment was great.
nonetheless, Bolt isn't just the fastest man in the world -- he is the fastest man in history. And now in not one but the two main sprint events. The only other two men to complete the 100-200 double were Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens (Michael Phelps, it must be said, is no Jesse Owens) and neither of them broke both world records in doing so.
Yeah, there are shot putters, just as in swimming there are divers. And lots of those shot putters are great athletes -- football linemen, such as the 1984 gold medal winner, who was also a pro bowl football player.
Plus, there is the Africa factor. If there are five times as many track athletes as swimmers in the US there are, what, 100 times as many track athletes as swimmers in Africa?
In any case, I am absolutely astounded by Phelps and think he is awesome. But what Usain Bolt has done is getting lost, and in each single event he was more impressive and had to beat out a whole lot more people than Phelps did in any two of his events.