Several people have now mentioned to me that fawning over Michael Phelps isn’t fair because of all the new swim technology (like the LZR suits) that he gets to take advantage of--that yesterday's athletes didn't use. But now Will Saletan at Slate has asked: “Can we please stop fussing over every new Olympic record? A new record means that an athlete using today's equipment outperformed an athlete using yesterday's equipment. It's not a fair fight.” He then goes on to list all the advantages of modern sports from pool-depth to bicycle-wheel spokes. What a curmudgeon!
I think that being amazed by Michael Phelps is not simply about the man but about the totality of circumstances that created this incredible human endeavor of swimming like rockets. That is, we are engendering the most ideal circumstances for the most ideal swimmer to use to his advantage. It is a perfect storm of science and muscle, and that collaboration results in record-shattering, jaw-dropping, inspirational performances. And I say, Woo Hoo!!! Super cool! I can’t wait to see the freakishly fast dude that crushes Phelps in 20 years, too.
The historical record gives us perspective on a sport that almost none of us follow with enough regularity to know what common split times are. We need a record to aid our comprehension of the perfect race. And fine, maybe Phelps in a shallow pool with no LZR suit wouldn’t beat Mark Spitz’s times (but I bet he would!), but every time a record is smashed, I still think: Wow, we are just becoming bionic; we are swimming five seconds faster than we used to. How cool is that? There’s something plain old exciting about a talented guy--yes using all the science he can get his hands on--advancing our conceptions about just what is possible. And right now, the guy advancing those conceptions better than anyone else in the world is Phelps. And I say, Rock On.