1/100th of a second. Such are the margins in the Olympic Games. And such was the difference between Michael Phelps winning his seventh gold, and claiming a silver in the 100m Butterfly. In one of the most incredible swimming races you’ll ever see, Phelps was behind for 99.95 m of a 100m race, and managed, in the final 5cm, to jump ahead of Milorad Cavic of Serbia to equal Mark Spitz’s performance from the 1972 Munich Olympics, and won his seventh gold medal of the Beijing Games.
The 100m Butterfly – Phelps’ toughest challenge
Phelps was up against not only world-record holder and teammate Ian Crocker, but also Serbia’s Milorad Cavic, who actually had the fastest qualifying time and therefore lined up in the coveted Lane 4. Phelps was right next to him in Lane 5. The tension was high, even watching on television. I had to wonder, “Would he crumble under the immense pressure?” I was waiting for a false start or similar error that would alleviate the pressure of trying to win the race—or avoid the disappointment of potentially losing.
It was a clean start, however, but Cavic was firing down the pool towards the first turn. Before the turn this was not necessarily a reason for Phelps fans to worry. After all, one of his biggest advantages seems to be his turns, and he always seems to come out ahead especially after the final turn of a race. Cavic blitzed the first 50m, turning first, but Phelps was a distant 0.64 s behind. The turn failed to narrow that gap significantly, as for once, Phelps did not produce one of his trademark turns, and this time it was Cavic who surfaced ahead of Phelps! And not just by a hair, but he appeared to have a commanding lead.
The finish – a fingertip, or less…
But surely Phelps would catch him down the stretch? At 25 m to go, Cavic was holding off Phelps and steaming ahead on his was to becoming the spolier. Even closer to the wall, Phelps was clawing his way back but it honestly did not look as though he had enough water to do it. And in the final stroke, Cavic made a telling error as he lunged for the wall a fraction early. As a result, Cavic reached for the wall under water, whereas Phelps managed to put in one more powerful stroke, ABOVE the water.
That made the difference, and while to the naked eye, it was too close to call, the electronic touch pad and timing system registered Phelps as the winner by a mere 0.01 s! If you view the slow-motion replay, you’ll see how Cavic was gliding to the wall, under the water, and was perhaps 10cm from the touch, when Phelps made his final stroke. The slow-motion reveals how the gap, which must have been 20cm, was narrowed and then surpassed by Phelps – one stroke above the water, and 1/100th of a second, and Phelps took the lead in the final 5cm of the race!
You can do the math to work out how close that was—less than the length of finger tip, maybe?—but no matter how you count it, it was amazingly close.
But it ain’t over until the Serbian woman sings
Shortly after the finish, however, Cavic and his coach filed a protest, that Cavic had in fact touched the wall, but with insufficient force to trigger the electronic timer. The protest went to a FINA committee and they made a expeditious ruling on it and upheld the result. Phelps kept gold and Cavic took silver.
When you’re hot, you’re hot
It is inexplicable how Phelps eked out the win. He was 0.64 s behind at halfway, and he did not appear to make up much time upon surfacing after the turn. Which effectively means that he pulled back the time over the remaining 35 m as they can stay underwater for no more than 15 m after the turn. Clearly Cavic was slowing down, as is the normal pacing strategy for his event – all the competitors swim a positive split.
Which brings us to the conclusion that perhaps it is just Phelps’ time, and somehow luck is on his side so that in a race as close as this one, he comes out ahead although by the smallest of margins. This is actually a really interesting point about sporting performance, as we simply cannot explain these kinds of situations. Clearly the two athletes are matched closely in ability, motivation and fitness, yet the obvious statement is that only one of them can win. How do we know which one it will be? In races like these, the answer to that question remains a mystery.
Making a habit of close 100 m fly finishes?
So Phelps managed to squeak by Cavic by 0.01 s in Beijing this year, but if we turn back the clock and go to Athens four years ago, we see a similar race. The only difference was that instead of Cavic who came out firing and as leading at 50 m, it was Phelps’ teammate (and world record-holder) Ian Crocker who surfaced after the turn with at least half a body length on Phelps. Again it came right down to the last five meters, and Phelps prevailed only by 0.04 s to take gold in Athens.
Beware the mythological physiology
One thing that we can be sure of though, is that as sports fans we must be careful not to portray Phelps as being a physiological superman. We saw this happen with Lance Armstrong where sports pundits and even Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin kept the myth alive by gushing about Armstrong’s larger than normal heart, bigger than normal lungs, lower than normal lacate concentrations, and his remarkable weight loss after cancer. None of these characteristics were ever measured or proven, and in fact his “remarkable weight loss” was disproven in a scientific paper in which his weight was measured yearly both pre- and post-cancer, revealing that actually he weighed slightly more post-cancer.
The reality is that the usual explanations are completely unable to explain why one athlete is dominant – when you put these athletes in a lab, there is NOTHING that can be measured that proves why one athlete is superior to another. In cycling studies, for example, a Pro-Team will be measured, and the best guy is often the one with the smallest heart and lowest VO2max!
So is Michael Phelps a great athlete? Indeed. Does he train hard? Most certainly. Harder than his competitors? Perhaps, yes. Is he motivated? Maybe more than anyone else in the pool. But this speculation about how his toes are so long that they wrap around the starting blocks and give him an advantage? Or that he is double-jointed in his knees and that gives him a better dolphin kick? Or that his heart is extra large to pump blood (so are the other 7 guys’, incidentally)?
Come on, people, let’s keep it real here. Until those things are measured and shown to be true, let’s just say he is a great athete with a strong will to win who so far has done everything right, including wearing a Speedo LZR Racer (and he has even been a bit lucky, too).
Quick Athletics wrap
The action on the track started on Friday, and you can read our post on the women’s 10000 m final here. In other notable action it was the men’s 100 m heats, and to no surprise we are on track for an epic show down between Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Tyson Gay (should his injured hamstring remain healthy). All three cruised through their respective heats, but no one made it look easier than Bolt. He won his heat in 9.92, s but in fact he had the race wrapped at 40-50 m, when you could see him glancing left and right to make sure he stayed ahead of the others.
That final is scheduled for Saturday at 10:30 PM Beijing time, so check your time zones now so you do not miss it!