Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Greatest Olympian Ever!! Really?

There was a posted question to a forum that I frequent that asked the question. "Can you buy elite athlete status"? The provocation behind the question was the fact that Micheal Phelps won 8 golds and broke 7 world records in the Beijing Olympics. Yet he did it while wearing a $1000 LZR swim suit, etc... This prompted the poster to ask about triathletes who are notorious for spending thousands on bikes that will "make them faster". As I read the responses to the question it got me thinking about the comparisons of athletes from 20 years ago and today. Is one better than the other? Are we as athletes spoiled by technology in today's high tech world?

The short answer is yes and no.

Is Phelps better than Spitz? Is Tiger better than Palmer? Check out this comparison:

I first want to start by saying that it is unfair to compare the past athletes with current ones. Especially when you do it by shear number of medals, or passing yards or baskets in a game. Its like saying that everything is more expensive than it was 20 years ago. That is not an entirely true statement. Any economist will tell you that you have to normalize everything first. Is Favre a better passer that Namath? Maybe by shear numbers but football teams today pass a lot more than they did 20 years ago. It is definitely not an easy question to answer.

The link from the Wall Street Journal above does it just right. It shows that the performances of Spitz and Phelps when compared within the context of their time were almost equal. Maybe not in shear speed but in say margin of win over the second place finisher. Sure if you put the 1972 Spitz in the pool with the 2008 Phelps, Phelps would win handily and that gets down to advances in technology and physiology.

How does this tie into the ability to buy elite status as an athlete? You cannot separate technology from training and taking care of your body. There are breakthroughs in all of it from time to time. At times technology makes a big jump forward and everyone eventually has it making us all faster. Then it reaches critical mass and physiology takes a great leap. then we all learn the new training technique and nutrition breakthroughs so it reaches a critical mass, and so on.
I would bet that if you compare all the athletes than raced against Phelps the technology they use, food they eat, and the training plans they are on are all real close. If that is the case then you have to get down to who has more heart, who skipped that one workout and who didn't, who had that McDonald's hamburger one day when they shouldn't have, and most of all who has the most natural talent. Minor differences but important non the less.

If Phelps had a secret technological advance in his suit it would not take long before everyone had it and the playing field would be even again. If Phelps found a new training technique, before long everyone would use it.

Price is subjective and almost irrelevant. If you want to be a pro you know that you have to spend 30+ hours a week training. If you want to be a pro you know you have to have the latest bike technology. Either way if you want to be a pro that badly you are going to find a way to train the same and afford the stuff. The real question is, How dedicated to the dream are you? I know pros that drive a car that costs less than their bike. They are dedicated to their dream.
A pro on a entry level road bike would not last long because everyone else had faster equipment. That same pro also knows that the carbon frame that they ride is not much better than an entry level bike if he or she does not put in the hours or become meticulous about technique.

NO, elite status cannot be bought. There is no equalizer as true as training.

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