Monday, August 18, 2008

Phelps over Spitz is hard to Swallow…

OK. I gotta know… does anybody else wonder about Phelps' achievements? So no one misunderstands my angle, indulge me. Step inside my head for a spell. I’ll spill my thoughts out for you in detail to nosh on, then you decide.

Modern sports have become mired in controversy over drug use and doping. The fundamental rationale for the World Anti-Doping Code (which is wholly adopted in toto by the IOC in the Olympic Charter) is “to preserve what is intrinsically valuable to sport.” The code states intrinsic value is characterized by ethics, fair play and honesty; excellence in performance; and health. It’s a few of these that got me thinking… I’ll start with a ridiculously simplistic scenario then move into a more complex one.

Let’s assume you have two sprinters representing different countries. Both are evenly matched in abilities and health. During training, they both find they are lagging behind the field of sprinters as a result of some deficiency. The first sprinter chooses to take a drug to erase the deficit. The second sprinter chooses not to. The race is run and the first sprinter – the doper – wins...

Let’s assume the deficiency is physique, and the drug is hGH. The medallist is stripped, disgraced, and may or may not be expelled from the sport. Now, imagine for a moment the deficiency they both suffer is severe bronchitis and the drug is Azithromycin. No problem. Results stand and medals are kept. But what if the second sprinter doesn’t take the drug because it is unavailable to him?

I know what you might be thinking, that’s stupid Scoop. There isn’t an NOC on the planet that doesn’t have access to basic antibiotics. Yes, I know that. I’m just saying what if the non-doper doesn’t take the drug because he literally can’t. What if there are disadvantages to certain countries athletes because that country’s NOC doesn’t have the same technological advancements as others? What if there is a better antibiotic that wasn’t available to one sprinter but was to the other? And, couldn’t this extend beyond antibiotics to equipment? The IOC strives to maintain fairness, but gives guidance on specialized equipment only in as much as to say that any publicity concerning the equipment must be submitted to the NOC concerned for approval. In other words if a country has a high-tech tracksuit any publicity concerning that suit must be approved by that Country’s NOC.

I said the first example would be a ridiculously simplistic scenario, right? So here is the more complex sequel: What if there was a swimmer who didn’t have the training facilities; team of massage therapists, physicians, coaches, dietitians; or a $600 high-tech, space-age, shove-the-fat-from-my-ass-into-my-pecs swim suit? If our tech-poor swimmer is swimming against those that do have all the above, is there a fairness issue? If one of the goals of the games is to promote fair play, shouldn’t we make sure all Olympians are equally equipped or equally not equipped? If we won’t allow pharmaceutical enhancements, why allow the technical enhancements unless they are universally available?

I am very impressed by and proud of our accomplishments in the Olympics, but in a lot of ways I find myself rooting for those Olympians who stand to win a medal in spite of the competition’s overwhelming technological and financial advantages. (Itte Detenamo from Nauru comes to mind. He is the only Olympian from his country. I plan to be his biggest fan outside of the 8.1 square mile Micronesian island nation. It would be sweet to see him Medal in Men’s Weightlifting +105kg)

All this said I believe Michael Phelps to be one of the greatest swimmers in history. Phelps, in my opinion, would have won most of his gold medals without his space suit, but not all; and he would not have set 7 world records. Then again, and listen up critics, he set a world record in the 200 meter butterfly in spite of water-filled goggles – an equipment disadvantage, so maybe I’m wrong…

The media compares Phelps to Mark Spitz. It would be something to see the two of them equally matched with (or without) the suit go head to head. It would be one hell of a race all things being equal, but they’re not.

Of course, I’d insist Phelps grow a dirt squirrel…I figure stash-drag had to cost Spitz at least a tenth…


  1. Everyone does have the same access to technology. Everyone just has to pay for it. When the modern games began the IOC said only amature athletes allowed. The reason they said this is because they wanted to keep the "riff-raff" out and only athletes from proper backgrounds would be able to take the time off to train and compete. So all the IOC is doing by letting some competitors spend millions of dolars is following with tradition.

  2. Thanks for your comment...

    Doesn't the second sentence of your comment mean many wouldn't have access? Everyone does not have the same access to technology... that was my point. It was that very bit of misinformation that led me to author this post.

    I define access as the availability of something and the ability to acquire it. A lot of people have been fooled into believing everyone has access because no one has been denied availability. We can say everyone has access to a Lamborghini, right? But does everyone really have access?

    Access and ability to acquire it go hand in hand in my opinion. If an olympic team cannot afford to outfit it's members with the same equipment as another country's million dollar team, it goes against the spirit of the "Olympics." Call it the world tournament, treat it like a bunch of million dollar NASCAR teams, and I'll back off... but don't try to make us all cry with sappy stories of world unity and pure athletics while a millionaire in a second skin streaks past a guy who had to train without all the same advantages.

    You say everyone has access, but I disagree. It seems we have a different reality of what access is.

  3. Anyone can go out and run. Anyone can go out and lift weights. And anyone can go out and swim. Speedo was giving their suits away for free at the games. Phelps might not have broken every world record without that suit but he would of broken most. Saying a swim suit is the difference is like saying a ping pong paddle can make a difference. Would Bolt have set two world records if it weren't for his gold Nike's.
    Swimming is one of the last sports where technology or money makes a difference. Archery or shooting needs technmology. Equestrian (which I believe should not be an Olympic sport... that's a whole other conversation)has to have the best horse to win, not the best rider. It takes money to buy the best horse. So if I wanted to be an Olympic athlete I could. I won't, but it is because I don't have the drive, not because I don't have the money.

  4. I'm glad to see we agree that Phelps wouldn't have broken as many world records without the suit...

    And as for you being an olympic althlete... well that makes me want to write a post just for you...