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Posts Tagged ‘Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt and his place in history

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Yesterday, Usain Bolt had his last major competion. Predictably, even in light of mere bronze, there were many superlative statements made, many naming him the greatest sprinter of all time or even greatest (track-and-field) athlete of all time.

Depending on the exact claim, I am not certain that I agree, the main obstacle being Carl Lewis and the problems of making comparisons with earlier generations: Many greats of old competed in one Olympics and then retired to actually make a living, and world championships are a comparatively recent innovation*: What would e.g. Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, or Tommie Smith have done had they had the realistic opportunity for a longer, professional career? (And what times could they have run on modern tracks?) Looking at athletics in general, many of the greats simply had no realistic opportunity to “double”, making comparisons in e.g. golds or number of world records misleading: For e.g. Al Oerter, Sergey Bubka, Viktor Saneyev, Jan Zelezny, …, to win even a single major gold in a second discipline would have been more impressive than Bolt winning a handful. Similarly, Michael Johnson’s 200m/400m career is likely worth more than a mere medal comparison would indicate.

*First held in 1983 and then at distances of four years until 1991/1993. Bolt has had them two years apart through his entire career. Carl Lewis, e.g., missed out on the opportunities in 1981, 1985, and 1989—where he would have been a clear favourite in both the long jump and the 100m. To boot, other athletes, including Lewis and Owens, have missed potential Olympics due to boycots or wars; Owens 1940 off his 1936 could conceivably have replicated Lewis’ 1988 off his 1984; Lewis would have been a very strong medal candidate and at least a weak gold candidate in the 1980 long jump.

Certainly, I would still view Carl Lewis as the greatest overall. His dominance in the long jump was immense, with one of the longest unbeaten streaks of all times and events, four Olympic golds (and gold/gold/silver at four-year-apart world championships), and a revolution of the non-altitude* world record. He did to the world record what Bubka did in the pole vault; to the medal record what Oerter did in the discus throw. Even without his additional sprinting efforts, the choice between Lewis and Bolt would be tricky; with them, it should be a no-brainer for Lewis.

*Unfortunately, the effects of altitude on results was realized too late; and where there is a limit on how much tail wind is allowed for a record to be valid, there is no such limit on altitude. This severely distorts the official record histories and those in the know prefer to look at non-altitude records. Lewis had to compete with high-altitude records in all three events, including Bob Beamon’s monstrous 8.90—which also has been questioned as potentially aided by an illegal amount of wind and a faulty wind reading. Lewis took the non-altitude record from 8.54 (Dombrowski) to 8.79 (and with an additional 8.87 in the same competion that Mike Powell set the current 8.95)—an improvement by almost 3 % or, correspondingly, almost 3 tenths in the 100m/6 tenths in the 200m. (I have not been able to find a list of non-altitude records on short notice. The numbers are taken from http://www.alltime-athletics.com/mlongok.htm, which has an exhaustive list with altitude indicators.)

Looking at greatest sprinter, I too would likely favour Bolt, but it is not as clear cut as some seem to see it. Apart from what has been already mentioned, we have to keep in mind that the 100m/200m combination, with the possible exception of 5000m/10000m, is the easiest around. Virtual any top 100m-sprinter has also been a top 200m-sprinter, although some have chosen to only rarely run the 200m. (Say to maximize their chances in the more prestiguous 100m; or to avoid an “embarassing” bronze medal in the 200m.) Indeed, the comparison with Carl Lewis is made harder because he deliberate skipped the 200m at world championships where he did win the 100m (and scored gold/gold/silver in the long jump). Looking at times*, (non-altitude) world records, and superiority, Lewis actual fares quite well in the comparison even in the 200m**; and arguably has an edge in the 100m**. The main argument in favour of Bolt over Lewis is the latters “weak” record in the 200m, with just an Olympic gold/silver—but since Lewis had less opportunities to build his record, this partially amounts to whether ability or accomplishment is prioritized in the comparison.

*Comparing times directly, as in Bolt ran X/Lewis Y is of limited benefit, due to e.g. changes in tracks. Instead we have to look at times in their historical perspective.

**I looked into the numbers a few weeks ago, but did not take notes (not having an intention to write anything at the time).

As for the 100m, Lewis took five out of five possible golds in the nine year span from 1983 to 1991 (two Olympic, three WC). With a different schedule, this could* have been eight out of eight (WCs in 1981, 1985, 1989; eleven year span). According to Wikipedia Bolt has a total of six out of seven (one miss!) in the nine year span from 2008 to 2016. Bear in mind that Lewis did this while also doing the long jump on all occasions and the 200m on at least two; Bolt also had a second event, the 200m, but never a third and the 200m is easier to combine with the 100m. Lewis improved the non-altitude world record more often, including the first 10.00 in history, and by roughly the same overall amount; Bolt has a larger difference down to the second best. Their respective greatest winning margin in a major championship (in my recollection) was identical. In my book, this is a narrow victory for Lewis; on the outside a tie.

*Note that I am not saying “would”. While he would have been the favorite, there are no guarantees, he could have gotten injured, had an off year, lost motivation with the more intense schedule, …

As an aside, Bolt’s winning record could conceivably have been a fair bit weaker, had Gatlin and Gay not suffered doping suspensions; but Lewis’ would have been weaker (in the 100m) had Ben Johnson not been caught.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2017 at 4:52 pm

Olympic trials or tragedies?

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I have long been annoyed at the way participation in the Olympics and many other international championships are handled, especially from the point of view of priorities: Sports should be for the athletes first, the fans second, and various organizations/the broad masses/sponsors third (or even fourth)—and it almost invariably ends up being the other way around.

Consider the following absurdities resulting from the inconsistent country-specific regulations and/or the general limit that a country is allowed to send only three athletes:

  1. Allyson Felix is the reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 200-meter dash, a strong victory candidate, and despite still recovering from injury problems came in fourth at the U.S. Olympic trials—missing third place by a hundredth of a second. She is not allowed to go. There will be some (non-US) women going who have run no better than 23.20 (according to http://www.iaaf.org/competition/standards), to be compared to Felix’ season’s best of 22.54, last year performance of 21.98, and personal best of 21.69 (all according to her IAAF profile).
  2. Meanwhile, Jamaican Usain Bolt failed to compete at all due to injury in the Jamaican trials. He is also the reigning champion, also one of the favorites—and he gets a free pass from Jamaica. Better than the Felix case? Possibly—but tell that to whoever actually came third…
  3. Swedish hurdler Sanna Kallur* has repeatedly run faster than the international qualification standard, she is the hands down best female hurdler in Sweden, and in the absence of an Olympic trial of the U.S. or Jamaican type, she should be an easy choice for Sweden. However, Sweden applies a stricter qualification standard and, unless the rules are bent, she will not go either—in which case Sweden will not send a female hurdler, there being no single woman, let alone three, to fill up the team…

    *Unlike the aforementioned, she is unlikely to be a victory candidate due to years of injuries and old age. In her prime, however, she was formidable. Merits include the (still standing) indoor world-record in the 60m hurdles and European championship victories both indoors and outdoors.

This, of course, is just a small portion of all the absurdities that could have been listed. The U.S. Track-and-Field trials alone produce a handful of cases per Olympic cycle. Looking over the totality of all Olympic sports and all the countries involved there will be hundreds of cases just for the current Olympics.

To prevent such injustices and absurdities, a completely different approach is needed: It must be only the performance of the individual that counts—not what nationality someone has. The exact modalities are of course negotiable, but a reasonable interpolation from the current system would be that anyone* who has achieved the qualifying limit is allowed to go. Other possibilities include some form of gather-points-to-qualify, as used in e.g. tennis for its yearly tour finals, or a variation of the world-ranking concept.

*With some natural reservations, like the exclusion of anyone currently serving a doping suspension. However, under no circumstance the currently popular attempts to exclude people from competition for having the wrong opinions.

The only argument I have to date heard in favour of the three-athletes limit, is that there is a risk that some event or other grows boring, because we know in advance that the majority of the top-ten will come from a single country. So what!?! If Soviet pole-vaulters, U.S. sprinters, or Kenyan runners (at various times in history) would have been so utterly dominant, let them. The athletes themselves want a fair chance to win, while the true fans of the sport often care more about the individual athletes than nationality. For that matter, a dominance so complete that upsets never happen is very rare and tends to be short-lived—and they have grown rarer over time: Even if the argument had held at some point of time (of which I am skeptical), it need not hold today.

The U.S.-Style trials have more justification (assuming that a three-athletes limit is already imposed from the outside), e.g. in that someone who cannot win in the U.S. is unlikely to win globally, that it prefers the athletes with good nerves and the ability to “bring it”, or that that “bad day” could as easily have happened during the actual Olympics. Every system has its advantages and disadvantages, every system will leave an athlete here and there being (in one sense or another) unfairly left-out, and none can magically remove the three-athletes limit*. Disadvantages of the trials include the abruptness, the increased element of chance, the need to peak several times in one season, and less tolerance for injury periods (cf. e.g. Felix above).

*Notably, the three-athletes limit makes it hard to find a good compromise. For instance, it might be plausible to divide the number of participant into three pools for best trial results, best marks of the season, and wild cards based on subjective estimates about past or future accomplishments. However, that makes each pool one person large… Going to six instead of three, we could have a trial pool of three, the two best marks, and one wild-card (or a number of other distributions).

Another angle is whether the concept of national teams are truly compatible with the Olympic spirit* to begin with: Would it not be better for international friendship and harmony if the athletes competed as individuals instead of representatives of their countries, without the resulting “us vs. them”?

*What exactly is meant by Olympic spirit has varied from time to time. The current official stance appears to involve “to build a peaceful and better world […] a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play […] promote tolerance and understanding […] to make our world a more peaceful place.” (Re-quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_spirit.)

In as far as national organizations, completion’s, whatnot, have a role to play, then only to the degree that they may choose to support or not support the respective athletes. Sweden might let Kallur, and the U.S Felix, fend for herself in terms of travel costs, training camps, and similar—but they should have no say in whether she is allowed to enter the competition.

A welcome side-effect of focusing on the individual instead of the nationality is that the artificial import of athletes along the lines of Turkey or Bahrain, where athletes switch nationalities like they do soccer clubs, would be less tempting and less of a problem.

More generally, the way the individual athlete is treated today is often disgusting, as a mere pawn for the powers that be and far from being the main player of the drama. Consider, for instance, how the sponsors of the individual athletes are booted from the Olympics in favour of the Olympic sponsors—money that should have gone to the the athlete and PR that should have gone to his sponsor instead go to the IOC and their sponsors… The athlete is helpless: Boycotting the Olympics will hurt him far more than the IOC (barring an unlikely mass protest). Other examples include restrictions on acceptable opinions and behavior outside of the field of sports, anti-doping measures that cause impositions few of us would agree to live with, the obligation to participate in certain competitions (as is the cases with high-level tennis players, who have good reason to complain about too little time for recuperation), and arbitrary rule changes (e.g. track-and-field, formula one).

Written by michaeleriksson

July 12, 2016 at 12:14 am