7.09.2009

Ferocity Touches a Vein

Today's guest lecture comes from Brian Lauvray, whom Chicagoans may know from his post at Gapers Block's Tailgate sports section...Brian brings to us a piece on one of our favorite subjects, Usain Bolt, who the Recluse nicely pitted against Amare and Michael Phelps in a piece from last summer. This summer, we join Bolt, and Lauvray (metaphysically), in Switzerland...



This week and across the pond in Europe the titanic freak-of-physics, Usain Bolt redefined swag and athleticism with one deft 19.53 200 m "jog." Seriously, forget "Impossible is Nothing," Bolt is going door-to-door asking for donations in difficulty. To wit, in Lausanne here's what went down: (note: vid is in Italian)




Fierce head wind, check; driving rain storm, check; pre-race: Bolt? Flipping his fingers like under-sized windshield wipers while flexin' and apin' for the umbrella-ed crowd; race: Bolt singularly putting the competition in a headlock and putting world-records and history --HIS world-records, mind you-- on notice, that he's coming. If LeBron, Kobe and on certain nights McGrady or pre-injury Gilbert redefine "virtuoso" and "appallingly efficient and single-handed dominance in a team realm," Bolt's performance at Lausanne emerges as a hyperbolic defying, amalgamate of Arenas' kooky candidness/antics and Kobe's iron-will to crush the spines of those who stand before him, all within a matter of minutes (pre-race/post-race: swag and show) and seconds (race: execution in the face of all-comers and Mother Nature's ornery mixtape of pelting rain and cursed wind).

Track and Field is a difficult comparison to our beloved Association --one is a battle of man vs man vs man vs man; and the other team vs team, only in the relays do you have "teams;" and even in the NBA where, on any given night, an individual can carry a team to victory: he still carried a TEAM. Track is strictly man vs man, as in the simplistic breakdown of boxing: "One man punches another man harder and more frequently," track is (again K.I.S.S.ing it here, folks): "I ran waaaaay faster than you." The actual competitions and nature of the distances --over 200 M pro racers are too close in skill for acts of brazen celebratory excess-- in T n F leave very little room for style or swag as opposed to the NBA where in-game style is self-evident. But stylistically what is galling about Bolt is that not only does he carry himself with unlimited confidence and showmanship pre and post-race, during the races he still carries that "swag" along with his invisible jetpack and the perfect form that allows his 6'5" frame to effortlessly eclipse others who should, by all previous track measures and conventions, be eclipsing HIM!

Watch the replay of the race closely and witness the utmost calm that his body maintains from start to finish; as other racers begin gnashing their teeth, tensing their bodies on each stride, and grimacing from the lactic acid coursing through their veins --no doubt begging for this very public humiliation to end; Bolt is beginning to grin, his countenance at the very worst pains of the sprint, slightly more expressive than "Uh-oh, did I remember to pay the cable bill this month?" and not near the Munch-eaen "Baby, Come Back! She didn't mean nothing!" expression of his "competitors." Where before in track the signposts of style and swagger were superficial commodities: Carl Lewis' black wraparound shades at the '84 Los Angeles games, Michael Johnson's gold Nike spikes in '96 Atlanta and '00 in Sydney; Bolt, has delivered with himself an article-free swag that is as much breezy, Jamaican, palm-lined, beach as it muscle-bound giraffe with the heart of a tiger that broke free from Dr. Moerau's island. In Beijing last summer with an untied shoe, dude, slowed in the final 35 meters of the 100 and still won gold. Again, people pre-Bolt did not win races by having untied shoelaces and definitely not by slowing down with a third of the race left to run...

I have a fair amount of intimacy in "the racing sports" (2000 US National Team Development Camp, Holler!) and an adage that a former mentor of mine once said rings hollow with Bolt. To paraphrase my old coach: "There comes a time in every race, where every single competitor has a neon-sign above their heads saying 'Kick my ass' and that's when you crush them." Yet, with Bolt, the neon-sign is swinging above the competition's collective heads before the race has even begun. The men lined up next to him are less his rivals and more dead men walking.

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27 Comments:

At 7/09/2009 10:35 AM, Blogger Vankov said...

Nice piece. That`s not Italian, mind you.

 
At 7/09/2009 10:45 AM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

I've argued with many a Phelps-lover, but I still maintain that Bolt was the best thing out of this Olympics.

I have no idea how he accelerates so fast at that size. He wins this race in the first five steps. My brain wants a better explanation than "he's just way faster," but there may be no other explanation.

 
At 7/09/2009 10:50 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Phenomenal swag. I agree with you, Salt. After all the Phelps-driven sports pieties at the Olympics, Bolt was the greatest thing that possibly could have happened. He just seems like a new breed, the LeBron of track.

 
At 7/09/2009 12:21 PM, Blogger Alexander J said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 7/09/2009 12:22 PM, Blogger Alexander J said...

FUTUREMAN

 
At 7/09/2009 2:18 PM, Blogger Teach said...

How did you originally compare Bolt to Amare? Bolt dominates every aspect of a race. He starts better than everyone. He goes through the turn better, and he picks up ground on the competition in the straight away. Amare only impacted one facet of basketball during the '05 conference finals and that was scoring. Duncan impacted the entire series by out rebounding Amare, getting more blocks, and doubling Amare's assists.

Bolt is more like LeBron, Dwight Howard, or Shaquille O'Neal who simply do things that they shouldn't be able to at their size.

 
At 7/09/2009 3:49 PM, Blogger Tony Ritz said...

Brown Recluse made the original Amare-Bolt comparisons and he was (by my interpretation) equating the "force-of-natureness" that both athletes bring to their respective competitions. The 'Bron, Shaq -forget Dwight, pls- comparisons are okay for now, but if Bolt (as he claims) masters the 400 m before London or, hell, before next year's Worlds, he'll become something unto himself. There will be no "Jordan of fill-in-the-sport" there will only be "the Bolt of fill-in-the-sport."

 
At 7/09/2009 4:06 PM, Blogger jochbe said...

Finnish...

Are there reasonable people who disagree with salt_bagel's first point? I am stunned that would even be an argument...

 
At 7/09/2009 4:07 PM, Blogger Teach said...

I completely agree. I just felt like Bolt's performance was being sold short being compared to Amare because Bolt is more than just the promise of something great. Bolt is something great, and if he masters the 400, then I'll finally understand Coleridge's poem "The Aeolian Harp."

 
At 7/09/2009 4:39 PM, Blogger Joey said...

@jochbe--given phelps's insane schedule over two weeks, that he did something no one had done before, and the manner in which he won, there is probably a credible athletic argument someone could make in his favor. i don't know anything about competitive swimming, but like sprinting, it appears that the movements of each body part must be carefully calibrated or else you can, say, get out-touched at the wall.

but that's me being generous. because you can make the same kinds of arguments about bolt--he did things no has ever done before. and the distance between him and his peers appears to be greater than that between phelps and his. to say nothing of the ease with which he runs into history. (and i suppose that was bre's point in comparing bolt to amare).

so i am with you, but i understand why someone might try to say otherwise.

 
At 7/09/2009 6:07 PM, Blogger AK Dave said...

Comparing Phelps to Bolt is apples to oranges. It is about as productive as comparing LeBron to Federer, or Jordan to Tiger. It's just silly.

What was so impressive about Phelps was that he raced in multiple disciplines, and had to race multiple times a day for over 2 weeks (or however long that took), and managed to beat guys even in his off-events where he didn't have a clear path to the gold. Lets be clear here: Phelps is NOT a dominant 100m butterflyer. World class? Yeah. Top 2-3 in the world? Yep. But he isn't head and shoulders above everyone else in THAT EVENT. Yet he still won- that's impressive to me. I didn't see Bolt trying his hand at the 1600m. I'm just sayin'.

Usain is clearly THE MOST DOMINANT sprinter in T&F right now, but to compare his accomplishments to those of Mike Phelps, he would have to win something else besides the 100 and 200.

Phelps won the 100fly- a balls-out sprint event- AND the 400IM, which is perhaps the most grueling race in swimming, which requires that you swim all 4 strokes. He also won everything in-between, dominating his specialty races with ease (200fly and 200free were not even close). Phelps was SECONDS ahead of his competition in these races, except, unlike Bolt- he didn't coast into his finishes, because he knows you never know when you'll get another chance at a world record, so you make it count.

Bolt is amazing- a real stud sprinter and the most impressive I've ever seen on a track since Mike Johnson. But face the facts, guys: he's one-dimensional. And that's OK. He does what he does- why do we feel the need to compare everyone and determine who the ONE BEST ATHLETE ON THE PLANET is? He's the best at his events- to try and crown him anything else is just a matter of opinion and conjecture, nothing more.

I, for one, am glad that there were 2 compelling and amazing stories like theirs' at the last olympics, and here's hoping they're both back in 2012

 
At 7/09/2009 6:58 PM, Blogger jochbe said...

@AK Dave--if comparing Phelps to Bolt is silly and unproductive, why do you go on to compare them, and draw a conclusion from that comparison? Perhaps by "compare" you mean "judge on a single absolute scale" ...but that is of course wrong (as your own performative contradiction shows), and your shouting reference to the "one best athlete" is a straw man. Furthermore, there is nothing necessarily silly in comparing Lebron to Federer, or Jordan to Tiger. Perhaps there is something wrong in doing so in a way that lacks nuance, and that doesn't note the relevant dissimilarities. But recognizing dissimilarities and cashing out their meaning is a kind of comparison...

@Joey--you are, in a sense (the most straightforward one, I suppose), completely right. And I should note that my comment was clearly flippant and off the cuff, and largely thrown in as filler to take some of the glare off of my nerdishness in noting that the language spoken in the video is Finnish rather than Italian.

But there is something you miss, though--I referred specifically to salt_bagel's comment, which says that "Bolt was the best thing out of this Olympics." That is very different from claiming that, say, "Bolt is the ONE BEST ATHLETE ON THE PLANET" or even that Bolt's sporting accomplishment was greater than Phelps. On those scores I pretty much agree with the spirit of AK Dave's comment--the proper comparison shows those judgements to be misguided. But the combination of the Phelps/NBC hype machine, Phelps's blandness, and the blandness of swimming in general all combined to make the spectacular feel more or less like drudgery. Even the 4x100 relay and the 100 butterfly, which should have been great moments, felt like minor bumps on a death march to me (and I doubt I am alone on this point, hyperbole notwithstanding). Bolt, on the other hand, brought a new level of spectacular. Surely that makes Bolt the better thing to have come out of the olympics...

 
At 7/09/2009 7:45 PM, Blogger salt_bagel said...

I think the best way to sum up Bolt's two runs is to say that I couldn't stop laughing after seeing them. I mean, I'm not sure I've ever seen an athletic performance that was just that preposterous. They just set off a different switch than Phelps, by a mile.

 
At 7/09/2009 8:18 PM, Blogger AK Dave said...

jochbe-

Apologies if I hurt your ears with my shouting reference. I'm too lazy for italics sometimes, and I did not mean to go all CAPS LOCK on you. However, I do feel that comparing athletes across sports is ultimately nonsensical. A consensus will never be reached, and all the logic in the world won't convince you or me one way or the other.

The fact that I went ahead and did exactly that just goes to show how much fun it can be, regardless :)

My intent was not to slam people for making such comparisons, but to outline how inherently different the achievements of Phelps and Bolt were, and to show that they are both, in their own right, amazing accomplishments. That said, one man's accomplishment does not another man's diminish. At least not across sports. At least it shouldn't, IMHO.

And while I may have re-worded the topic, I believe that the spirit of any Phelps/Bolt, MJ/Tiger, Ronaldinho/Pele discussion ultimately IS "who is the greatest athlete on earth", especially since we are talking about the best of the best in each respective sport; so I wouldn't call it straw-man.

As far as the conclusion that I draw from the comparison, I think we agree there anyway. You're right on one thing for sure: Phelps is bland, and swimming is boring to most people. It's similar to track, but in slow-motion. And to the untrained eye, it's nothing more than people splashing around for 1-4min until somebody touches the wall. The only thing that gets people exited about swimming is to see somebody win consistently.

If you want to draw out this comparison (why not?? this is fun!), take a look at all the money Phelps made as a result of his accomplishments. It's absolutely unprecedented in swimming; and I can't think of a track athlete who has cashed in as much as Phelps either. And make no mistake: anybody would if they could. Yes Phelpsy was hyped like no other by NBC, and yes, it was nauseating. I found myself rooting for Cavic at one point, but in spite of the odds and in the face of all the pressure and expectation, Phelps won. Anything less than 8 golds would have been considered by many to be a failure. Bolt, on the other hand, was playing with house money when compared to this ridiculously high expectation. What he did was awesome, and I like his panache and flare, but what he did does not cast a shadow over what Phelps did.

Joey said: ...the distance between him and his peers appears to be greater than that between phelps and his. You are correct. It appears that way. Bolt is about 1/2 sec ahead of his competition in the 200m, but it LOOKS like an even bigger margin because of how fast they are running. 1/2 of a second in Nascar looks like an even bigger margin than that. But 1/2 of a second is 1/2 of a second. Phelps is secondS ahead of his competition in his strongest events (he set a WR in the 200fly with his goggles full of water and nobody in sight when he touched); so I daresay that the distance as measured in time between himself and his competitors may be even greater than that of Bolt.

...

Anyway, my previous comment was not meant to stir up a hornets nest, but rather to discuss rationally A) whether such comparisons are even worthwhile, and B) to bring to light some evidence in defense of Mr. Phelps, who, in my own biased, subjective opinion, deserves every bit as much appreciation for his accomplishments as Mr. Bolt.

 
At 7/09/2009 10:04 PM, Blogger jochbe said...

@AK Dave, I think we might only disagree on the proper use of the concept *comparison* (which, for instance, I don't think should be connected to consensus in the way you suggest). In fact, I agree with what you say in both of your posts, except for the first paragraph of each, and I think that the rest of each post puts the lie to those first paragraphs...

@Salt_Bagel--you put the point about Bolt perfectly, I think...

 
At 7/09/2009 10:07 PM, Blogger jochbe said...

Well, actually I also don't agree with the idea that all such discussions must become "greatest athlete on earth" discussions. At least this is not conceptually necessary...

 
At 7/09/2009 10:54 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I, for one, thought that Redeem Team was the single best thing to come out of Beijing.

But with regards to phelps and bolt, it seemed to me that Phelps won 1. a lot more and 2. with much more drama. Granted, that could also be translated to mean he wasn't as purely dominant as Bolt, and I'll agree with that. Yet I got much more worked up cheering on phelp, lezak, and the rest of the team against the trash-talking French in the 4x100 or when he "out-touched" that poor Serbian guy in the 100m butterfly. Was there any doubt that Bolt wasn't going to obliterate everybody?

 
At 7/10/2009 12:42 AM, Blogger AK Dave said...

Daniel-

You're right about the "drama". Bolt was way ahead of everyone in his races, and let's face it- the 100m is a popular event. Some of Phelps' races were nail-biters. Just remember that the only races that were close were Phelps' off-events. I know I sound like the repeater here (that'll happen...), but in Phelps' "A-races", which are the 200fly, 400IM, and 200free- he completely dominated, and there was no doubt as soon as he dived in that he was going to smash his competition. He was almost 4 body lengths ahead of 2nd place in the 400IM, and the 200 free (which is arguably the most competitive and universally swam event in the sport) he took with ease, winning by 2 seconds. That margin in a race that lasts under 1:45 is pretty comparable to Bolt's margin of .5 sec in a race that lasts 20 sec (the 200). His goggles filled up on the start in the 200 fly and he STILL won. I guess where I'm going with this is, that yeah, there were close races (esp. in that 100fly), but he was swimming events outside his area of specialization, and still beat people at their best events, when they only had one or two races to worry about to his 8. The more I write this comment the more insane the whole thing seems to me.

Either way, I say we're all wrong here. Clearly the best thing to come from the olympics was the Polish women's volleyball team.

Women's volleyball rules. And so does Joanna Kaczor. Go ahead. Click the link, scroll down and see for yourself.

You're welcome :D

 
At 7/10/2009 2:13 AM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

Was Bolt the pre-tournament favorite in either the 100m or 200m in Beijing? (I don't know.)

 
At 7/10/2009 3:10 AM, Blogger Mark said...

didn't michael johnson say something like "if there were races run backwards I would've won those too"?

the reason bolt is that much more interesting for me is that phelps wins his races by his ability to turn faster and cover more distance underwater on the turn than his competitors, it's a little like watching Karl Malone (not that watching any other swimmers is reminiscent of anything other than malone..)

 
At 7/10/2009 1:53 PM, Blogger bobduck said...

To me the Phelps/Bolt debate mirrors the Kobe/LeBron debate in that you can point to specific aspects of Phelps' performance (superior technical skill visibile on the micro and macro levels to people that know swimming) as the reasons for his domination, whereas Bolt is just a case of physical domination without obvious reason. Bolt isn't meant to be able to run as fast as he is at his size, just like LeBron isn't supposed to be able to slip-step KG at 6'9" 285 (or whatever ungodly proportion he is), turn on a dime, and then dunk. Basically you can point to aspects of LeBron's game and say that he could do them better, just like you can point to Bolt's showboating as a "flaw," but their physicality puts them so far above the competition that it really doesn't matter all that much that 'Bron still doesn't have great footwork or that Bolt is basically asleep after the first third of the race.

Not sure what this *means*, just thought I would throw it out there.

 
At 7/10/2009 5:12 PM, Blogger Alexander J said...

THE B THE O THE B THE B THE Y

SeƱor Digital;free music for free people

Bolt is on another level.

 
At 7/10/2009 7:05 PM, Blogger AK Dave said...

Phelps sets WR in 100fly

Yeah, that just happened.

Phelps now owns WR's in:

400IM
200IM
100Fly
200Fly
200Fr
Not to mention WR's in 3 relays and the American record in the 100free (47.5)

By the way, if you haven't seen it already, check out Usain Bolt's recap of his 100m in Beijing :D

 
At 7/13/2009 1:17 PM, Blogger RC said...

Watching that video of Bolt made me tear up for a second.

 
At 7/20/2009 10:07 AM, Blogger Guindiblog said...

I love the token white dude in lane 8.

 
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