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Michael Phelps: World record for most world records broken in one week

August 13, 2008

Remember back in the day, when Sosa and McGuire were chasing Roger Maris’ home run record? It was kind of exciting, but everyone was quick to point out that Sosa and McGuire had better training and facilities, better equipment, better nutritional information (and possibly performance enhancing drugs).

So when Maris’ record was inevitably broken, it was almost anti-climatic. Big deal, we said; it took today’s athletes this long to achieve what Maris could do in 1961.

Why, then, is it such a big deal that Michael Phelps (and others) keep breaking world records?

William Saletan gives a whole list of advantages athletes in the 2008 Olympics have over athletes who competed even as recently as four years ago. Some, such as new suits and training methods, are “technological” advances while some, such as the depth of the pool, are environmental differences.

It is entirely possible that there are some environmental differences that make it harder to compete in Beijing (the crushing smog, if you compete outdoors, for example). But given what seems to be a favorable combination of technical and environmental factors this time around, the swimmers should be doing significantly better in Beijing.

Saletan proposes using an inflationary factor when judging whether existing records are broken, to account for the differences in technology and environment. He explains:

Olympic inflation indexing wouldn’t devalue new records. It would isolate and elevate records that truly stand out. Scores of media reports have boasted that every team in this year’s 4 x 100 men’s swimming relay beat the time that won that event four years ago. But that’s true only in what might be called “constant time,” a measurement similar to constant dollars. By inflationary standards, the British, who beat the 2004 winning time by three-tenths of a second in constant time, actually failed to keep pace with it. The Americans, who beat it by five seconds, produced a genuine achievement.

The trick becomes, how do you quantify the specific benefit provided by each technological advance? How much better could Phelps, or the Thorpedo, have done if they were wearing a LZR in Athens? How many home runs would Maris have hit using today’s baseball bats?

I like the concept but it would require some thought in its application. But if I were Phelps I would want to see something like this used, because I bet many of his records would still stand, and it validate the claim that he is the best swimmer ever.

To answer my original question though, I think people just like Phelps better than McGuire or Sosa. He seems like a nice guy in comparison. And probably seeing an American beating the rest of the world so soundly makes us feel good inside.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. ibrahim binshahbal permalink
    August 13, 2008 9:56 am

    nice article.

  2. August 13, 2008 11:12 am

    Plus, Phelps can’t be on ‘roids because they test for that before the games, right?

  3. August 13, 2008 1:11 pm

    If Marion Jones could send you a message from prison, she would tell you Olympians can still secretly take steroids.

    That being said, I think Phelps is just an amazing swimmer. He’s not doing anything illegal. My point is there is no way to truly compare his relative greatness as a swimmer against someone who swam 30 years ago and didn’t have the same training/technology/etc.

  4. August 13, 2008 1:15 pm

    I like this idea because it makes it harder to break a record, but when one gets broken, it means something.

    It’s like little league games where everyone gets a trophy no matter how well you did. I have a bunch of “Participant” trophies in my parents’ house. When you actually have to win to get one, it means more. I’d trade all my default trophies for one real one.

  5. August 13, 2008 2:27 pm

    I forgot about Marion Jones! You’re right.

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