Welcome to the Games of the Phelps Olympiad, or so it seems. Believe it or not, there is much of interest in swimming that doesn’t involve Michael Phelps. In my April 2012 Significance article “Olympic swimming gold: The suit or the swimmer in the suit?” I suggested that the high-tech suits didn’t improve swimming times much at all and that going back to the low-tech suits should hardly cause a ripple, pun intended.
The swimming action took place at the Aquatics Centre. Image: Alexander Kachkaev/flickr.
Now we have the results of 16 men’s events and 16 women’s events from London 2012 to cast more wood on the controversy fire. In their 2012 London low-tech suits, which unlike at Beijing in 2008 do not cover most of the body and do not have polyurethane, men swam almost exactly the same times (they lagged behind just 0.05% over four years). Even though women’s suits can no longer have polyurethane, they still gained 0.4% over four years. If the International Swimming Federation (FINA) was right, times should have regressed significantly.
The new results add significance to a table from my April article. I had chronicled the last two competitions for men with the high-tech suits and now there are three (up from two) men’s competitions with the current low-tech suits, as ordered by a needlessly panicked FINA swim federation. In the 2008 Olympics with the high-tech suits, there was a four-year improvement compared to 2004 of 1.69%. Also, the high-tech suits at the 2007 FINA Long Course Worlds racked up a 0.37% improvement compared to 2003, bringing the two competition average to 1.0%. I reported that the low-tech suits at the 2010 FINA Short Course Worlds were an average of 2.45% better than in 2006, a figure that had to be downgraded to a 2.10% four-year average since that meet was delayed eight months (swimmers who were to compete indoors were not to be inconvenienced by the summer heat of Qatar). That should be food for thought for those who will be attending the outdoor 2018 Football World Cup in Qatar’s 40°-50°C shade heat. The matches will not be in the shade. I added that the low-tech suits at the 2011 Long Course Worlds were worn with an improvement of 0.91% compared to 2007. Now, we can include the negative 0.05% improvement in London versus Beijing, giving a three competition four-year improvement for the low-tech suits of 1.0%, the same as for the high-tech suits. Not a ripple of difference. A carry away conclusion is that future swim improvement may be nearer 1% over four years rather than the all-Olympic four-year improvement of 1.6%.
It’s reasonable to say that the three best winning times for women and for men in 2012 are those with the most percent improvement since 2008, as in Table 1, with women’s (W) data at the top half and men’s (M) data below. The best three women’s performances were by Americans. Sun, the stellar Chinese distance swimmer had the two best men’s’ results. Phelps does not score here. All four of his gold meal performances were worse than in 2008.
A cause celeb in swimming was the closing 50m time of the Chinese woman’s 400m IM winner Ye who was faster than America’s male winner Lochte. Table 2 shows the split-by split comparison with the percent difference for each split. Over the nine previous Games (1976-2008) the average percent difference between the winning woman and man was 8.04% in the 400m IM. Ye was actually 11.1% behind Lochte after 300m, much worse than normal, for her first three strokes, based on the 50m splits at the top of the table and the 100m splits at the bottom of the table. The closing hundred (and last fifty) were what brought scrutiny. Actually, when she was finished, she was 8.66% behind Lochte, worse than the 9 Games average. She was just catching up when her last 50m was faster than Lochte and her closing 100m was only 0.03s behind.
Here’s another interesting point, this time about Chinese men. In setting the world and Olympic record at 1500m in London, Sun, mentioned above, maintained a 58.5s pace for each of the first 14 100m splits. By itself that is remarkable, in that America’s Johnny Weissmuller (later to become the movie Tarzan) broke the world record with a single 59s 100m swim in the 1924 Olympics. Sun’s last 100m was covered in 53.49s, after having swum 1400m. That last hundred would have earned him a gold medal in the 100m in 1960. Both Chinese swimmers Ye and Sun have amazing closing times. Instead of grousing about performance enhancing drugs, leave that to WADA. Instead, how about studying their training methods? That would be much more productive.