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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Bolt, again!

From 2008: Phelps, shmelps -- Bolt is the man!

That was a pretty impressive final: 9.63, 9.75, 9.79, 9.80

Phelps may be a 1 in 100 million talent (maybe not), but Bolt is 1 in a billion and possibly 1 in 10 billion.


 

50 comments:

Ken Condon said...

A combination of being 6’5” tall, intense training, and an abundance of fast twitch muscles makes for a human wonder. On a non PC note, have there ever been any serious studies as to why blacks are the fastest sprinters on earth? It is an obvious question that any thinking person wonders about from time to time.
Just as intellect.

Yan Shen said...

"Phelps may be a 1 in 100 million talent (maybe not), but Bolt is 1 in a billion and possibly 1 in 10 billion."

What about uh female Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen...

Anonymous_IV said...

How much is 1 in 1e8, 1e9, or 1e10 in SD?

Richard Seiter said...

Looks like they are all right around 6SD:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_distribution#Standard_deviation_and_tolerance_intervals
Any thoughts on how well human traits correspond to a normal distribution this far out on the tail?

David Coughlin said...

I think that what makes Michael Phelps 'special' is that his talent has endured, for the most part, through two Olympic cycles. She'll have another shot.

Yan Shen said...

Given how dirty most of sports is in general, it really wouldn't surprise me that any athlete was doping, be it Michael Phelps or Ye Shiwen or anyone else. Thus, I wasn't particularly worked up about the accusations being levied against her. I've been very critical of people like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Lance Armstrong.

I do believe though that the way the American media reported on the Ye Shiwen story reflected both racial bias and sour grapes. Immediately, we were inundated with stories about how Chinese athletes were "robots" manufactured by the Chinese government. The subtext was that even if Chinese athletes weren't doping, they were still somehow gaming the system. But of course, when an American athlete like Phelps succeeds, it's because of intense personal dedication to the sport and a desire to be the best.

i see a remarkable parallel between the way the American media reported on the state of state-sponsored athletics in China and the way that many frequent readers of this blog derail every single one of Steve Hsu's posts on affirmative action by suggesting that Asian Americans are "robots" who "game the system" by "grinding it out". I've argued before that this dehumanization of the Other is par for the course in this country, as it pertains to Asian Americans, and has a historical precedent going back as far as World War 2, when as John Dower noted in his book War Without Mercy, the Japanese were first considered to be sub-human, and later in the aftermath of their initial military successes, super-human, but somehow never quite human.

Certainly this kind of negativity is absent from the way that mainstream Americans perceive black, Hispanic, or Jewish Americans.

dwbudd said...

Plainly, both Phelps and Bolt are one in about 3 billion talents, given that there are about 3 billion males on earth, and each is the best at what he does.


Professor, you appear to me here to be falling into the trap of the American media, albeit in the reverse way - that is to say, the need not only to be the best, but simultaneously to denigrate the achievements of the other guy is persistent.


It's really silly IMHO to compare Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Their claims to fame are totally different - one is the fastest man in the world (in a 100 metre dash); the other is (was?) a multiple-event world record holder. I would ask before diminishing the accomplishments of Phelps, "what is talent?" Usain Bolt is head and shoulders (and more) above his competition in a singularly narrow-area. Is that "rarer" than being better than everyone else, albeit by smaller margins, in multiple events? I don't know.


It's truly mesmerising watching Bolt run; and he is obviously without peer in his event. He deserves the awe. But not sure the need to knock down someone else.


BTW, inadvertently, I think you fall into precisely the model Yan Shen below comments, with the US media and their reactions to the performance of Ye Shiwen specifically and the Chinese athletes more generally. MUST be something to criticise - the robot-like training. Maybe doping. It can't possibly be that they are just damned good and train hard. Nope.


Yan, I agree with your observations, though not perhaps that it's due to "race." I'm old enough to remember when precisely these same arguments (cheating; robot-like training) were used to justify demean the performances of Soviet and other Eastern bloc athletes. I am more apt to chalk it up to false patriotism and the parochialism of American sports fans.


I have no idea if Ye is doping. She will be tested, and if she is clean, then Americans should just stop whining.

steve hsu said...

See my post from 4 years ago. Bolt is #1 in a much deeper talent pool than Phelps. Number of people who know whether they have potential to be world class in 100m dash is much larger than the number who engage in enough skill-development to have a chance in swimming. I'm a former competitive swimmer so I know what I am talking about.

David Coughlin said...

It amazes me that that was FOUR years ago. It has gone by pretty fast.

dwbudd said...

Steve: Maybe; maybe not. Not sure that the number of people who seriously train for the 100 m dash is "much larger." It's true that every single person who has engaged in a game of tag has a rough idea how fast (or not) he can run. That's FAR from presuming the talent-pool for competitive track.


I suspect MORE people compete in track and field, world-wide. I do not have any data (your link from four years ago has not got any to help illuminate the situation, either). So we're left to presume. Empirically, Phelps is the best at what he has done, and so far as the number of medals he has won, across years and events, is without peer. Is that not "talent?" I think it is.

I read your previous article, which ends with (with all due respect) a silly meander into who can lift more in a weight room, as if that in and of itself is a reasonable barometer for comparisons of athletic ability. FYI - I was a competitive swimmer from the time I was about 8 years old; my old school marks, nearly 25 years ago, are long gone. I saw plenty of football players in the weight room who could lift much more than I could; of course, judging from their bellies... Not sure I would call any particularly "athletic."

steve hsu said...

The time we have left is going to pass very quickly :-(

dwbudd said...

The subject is far too taboo even to ask.

What's ironic is that, not only is every single finalist in the 100 m black (which has been the case for my entire life), I think genetic data show that virtually all come from the western, sub-Saharan region of Africa. It's been a while, but I read that all of the sprinters are black from a relatively small region centered around Nigeria. None comes from, say, South Africa or Kenya.



I suspect part of the reason is the political baggage - if you suggest that a group is "superior" in one trait, then it's not impossible that another group is "superior" in some other trait. And when one of those traits is physical....

dwbudd said...

Oh, and not to change the subject - there was a quite interesting piece in the New York Times last Sunday, about the progression of world records in various sports. The author - the numbers blogger Nate Silver - raised the issue about why some records fall (swimming being a current area, and he credits technological advances) and others do not (the long jump record of Bob Beamon stood for 25 years, and the subsequent record - set in 1991, is now 21 years old).

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/sunday-review/why-olympic-records-are-broken-or-not.html

steve hsu said...

Sprinting ability cannot be developed that much. Anyone who is remotely capable of sub-10s is a freak and knows it from an early age. Even people who are capable of sub-11s are freaks by the standard of HS sports (probably only 50% of NFL WRs could go sub-11s), and already get massive positive reinforcement for sprinting. Sub 9.7 is on another level entirely.


I knew a lot of kids in Iowa who desperately wanted to improve their 40 times but even with lots of training (weights, track sprinting, plyometrics) could only make marginal progress.


Sprinting ability, explosiveness, etc. are close to a "general factor" of ability in certain sports (FB, BB, soccer, etc.), and Bolt has, perhaps, as much of it as any other living human.

steve hsu said...

I think Silver also believes Bolt >> Phelps.

dwbudd said...

Not sure what Silver believes. I don't think he would wander off into sophistries comparing the two. His point is that most track and field performances have just about reached the limits of human ability, while advances in other sports (swimming at the top of the list) continue to allow records to fall.

Again, though. I have to ask what I think is really the relevant question when someone makes a claim that one person is a more unique "talent" than another, when the two compete in totally different arenas. "What defines talent?"

Usain Bolt is the fastest man who has ever run the 100 M (and 200 M) dash. If we want to define talent as "the ability to time a start out of the blocks, and accelerate in a short distance," then Usain Bolt is the most talented person who has ever lived, if empirical results are the standard.

dwbudd said...

When you get to the top level (as Bolt, in this case), in any physical competition, with few exceptions, the improvements are marginal. Unless some truly evolutionary change comes along (e.g., the so-called "Fosbury flop" in the high-jump), the improvements are tiny. In the other article (Nate Silver's), he and Stephen Jay Gould (and I use his name with great trepidation given the clouds that have gathered around his research recently) argue that in certain events - short sprints among them - we may be coming to what they call "the right wall" of performance. There obviously HAS to be a physical limit to human performance. No one will run the 100 M in one second, so the limit is somewhere between the current record (9.63?) and 1. What it is, who knows? I read a physics "proof" once that a man could not run a sub-4 minute mile. My brother is among the thousands of people who have subsequently done that.

Benjamin Schwyn said...

I found this
http://www.pratt.duke.edu/news/speediest-athletes-its-all-center-gravity, suggesting a "higher center of gravity", though I'm not sure of it's validity.

David Coughlin said...

I won't argue with you. I used to race my bicycle. Even among amateurs, as soon as someone goes faster, they get asked, "What are you on?" There was a small article on how catty the swimmers were in 2000, When anyone won [CNNSI, somewhere]. they were always assumed to be cheats [but, naturally, the losers weren't cheats]. I'm not even especially disposed to regard using pharmaceuticals as cheating. So, when the mainstream media picks it up, I'm deaf to it an its implications [and so, basically insensitive to the exceptions people may take to it; it's not personal]

That said, and as a corollary. I was basically a horrible student for most of my life. In 2000 I had my first honest-to-god knows-what-he's-doing coach in my life [I was getting into track racing]. I learned more about doing things well that year than any other time, and from anyone else. The most salient thing that I learned is that you *have* to grind, no matter who you are. [I read an article, also a while ago, that talked about how Kenyan runners run longer, and harder than anyone else does. That selection and training paradigm is why they dominate the distance running events]

I have seen the Chinese kids passed out in the libraries at 9a from all-nighters in the middle of the semester, and I thought, "You're doing it wrong." You should work until you exhaust your [mental] resources, and then you need to stop and recover. They are not giving themselves to opportunity to recover [adapt|learn; I don't think that your brainpower is much different a practically trainable biological system than any other one you have]. Those kids will fail at some point, because that technique doesn't scale to the biggest, hardest problems [but maybe it scales to the size of problem that they aspire to], but they will fail much higher up the mountain [and they should get credit for that, I think].

I don't know if it is a peculiarly American thing or Euro-derived thing that we act like attacking the mountain head on is 'gaming the system'. I do know a lot of people who start looking for shortcuts as soon they hit a bump. They end up spending more time looking for [shortcuts|'ingenious solutions'] than they would if they just did the obvious thing. It's a [cultural?] weakness.

I could go on and on about this, but I won't.

dwbudd said...

Laziness is a cultural weakness.

Thomas Edison once famously observed that "(o)pportunity is missed by most people, because it is dressed in over-alls and looks like hard work."

Jeff said...

Did you ever engage is something more challenging than running or swimming, something like downhill skiing? Something where you must decide if you are willing to give it all up in the pursuit of victory? What is missing from all of your posturing as to the greatness of Bolt is that in the end he is just sprinting and that skill while useful is not as useful as you would have us believe in other realms (you do not need to be explosive to be great at Football - Steve Largent, soccer - all the white teams, or basketball - Shaq; moreover with some minor rules changes the physical needs of these sports would change quickly; constant breaks in the action reduce the need for a high vo2 max). Sprinting is a skill that doesn't require any thinking and requires just a modicum of developed skill. Compare that to something like downhill skiing which pushes you to the absolute limit of your capabilities mentally, as you must determine the risk you are willing to take, and physically as you must recover from mistakes with a combination of coordination and strength. Unfortunately, like all things in the modern world, the downhill runs are not as demanding as they could be. But try a run next to someone like Herman Meier and you will quickly realize that less than 1% of the population has the constitution for this type of activity. Surely, Bolt is most nearly the fast man on the earth, who knows - for a lot of blacks are amazingly talented but lack the desire to do anything about it. And surely the Olympic skiers would probably not prove to be the absolute finest talents on the planet, if everyone where to be given a shot. But one is a sport that requires something extra, while the other is just running. And for anyone who claims they are a good skier, unless you can come with 1-2 seconds of a top Olympian you have no idea. All the danger and ethereal skill is required at the absolute limit. If you are 2 seconds off, then you are not at the limit and your participation is meaningless.

Jeff said...

I believe it was Patrick Arnold who two years ago said that it was now nearing the time where it would be possible to create unlimited new anabolics that would never be dectectable.
http://forum.cyclingnews.com/showthread.php?s=105ab8aec7edb183ea8e07f764d85fa7&t=16783 That is not the correct link, but it hints the problem. The drugs won't even need to be delivered with the knowledge of the athlete; they could even be applied transdermally via the "kinesiology tape" that is now en vogue. Obviously, people from all nations across the world are capable of cheating. It is also stupid not to pretend that the Chinese government and a few other choice nations, who use international competitions to sway public opinion, are not more incentivized to cheat than other governments.

Jeff said...

"The most salient thing that I learned is that you *have* to grind, no matter who you are."


This is false. Do you honestly think Michael Jordan had to grind as hard as lesser talents? I believe it was a Playboy interview where he said it was all so easy for him. When you are dealing with certain sports, people with astounding talent don't always have to grind it out. Not sure you ever need to grind in basketball anyway, but you get the point. Last night Bolt said that he had to "refocus" after his losses earlier in the year. I believe he said it was a 3-week period. There is no way that you can claim that 3 weeks equals a grind. Also, I think in 2008 Bolt said he ate McDonald's the day of the race (I could be mistaken but am pretty sure that was the claim); that is not grinding it out. Grinding it out with regards to dieting would be studying what works best and eating in a most scientific manner like many bodybuilders, not chowing down on nuggets. Some people are just better than everyone and some tasks are not really that hard to be the best at, when your talent is far above your competitors and the skill quotient is subservient to the natural talent quotient.

steve hsu said...

>> Did you ever engage is something more challenging than running or swimming, something like downhill skiing? <<


Other than football, Judo and Brazilian Jiujitsu? I guess not.

Yan Shen said...

Well given the prevalence of cheaters in American sports, i.e. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong, etc, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that other top tier American athletes might have doped their way to the top.

I followed the Olympics a lot more closely in 2008 than I have thus far, and I remember being captivated by the performance of Michael Phelps. I'm sure many people in China felt the same way. I don't remember the Chinese suggesting that Michael Phelps must've cheated his way to the top, like numerous other American athletes.

I don't want to turn this discussion into mud-slinging over which country cheats more, but given how prevalent cheating is in American athletics, I'm definitely amused by the sense of outrage that many people in this country are directing towards the Chinese. In my opinion, many Americans would be wise to get off their high horse called Sanctimony and take a long look at themselves in the mirror.

steve hsu said...

Silver: "... an athlete with the perfect swimmer’s build and a world-class work ethic would still stand little chance of competing in this year’s games if he happened to be born in a poor nation like Cameroon or Panama — he might never have gotten into a pool, let alone an Olympic-size one. But running, especially over short distances, can be practiced virtually anywhere and anytime."


On this specific point Gould is correct.

dwbudd said...

Yan - I think it's fair to say that there is more cheating in sport EVERYWHERE than most would want to admit.


Americans are notoriously poor losers, in my experience, and quick to explain away their own short-comings with indignant claims that someone else "cheated," or that the training programmes of others are somehow inhuman. Like I said, take a look at historical accounts from the 1970s and 1980s about Eastern European Olympic teams.


BTW, not to pick on Americans - the Europeans have been bleating about Lance Armstrong for a decade at least.


I watch some of the Games (I was a swimmer, so I find it interesting; who could not be excited watching the 100 and 200 M dashes? The long jump)? I find it close to nauseating, the flag-waving that goes on, whether it's Americans, Chinese, English, or whoever. Let the athletes bask in the glory that THEY have earned, for God's sake.

dwbudd said...

Yes; I *understand* the point from the perspective of sample size. I just think that it's a bit more likely that a talented swimmer in, say Panama, is overlooked than that a talented sprinter will be - but not much. The number of kids who compete (and train) for athletics in poor countries is pretty small, I would think.


I apologise - it's not my intention to hijack your thread. I guess I am just reacting to what appears to be a knee-jerk need to denigrate the achievements of one person as one boosts the greatness of another. No offence intended.

Jeff said...

Yan, I couldn't agree with your last sentence more. I have no idea if the Chinese girl cheats, knowingly or unknowingly, and don't really care. I don't know if Phelps cheats and don't really care. I hope they are all clean and I enjoy watching people realize their dreams regardless of their nationality. We are all human in the end.

Jeff said...

Now we are talking. Those are great sports.

David Coughlin said...

I read a humorous interview with Ato Boldon [and now that my reference points are ajumble, it might have been as long as four years ago]. He was talking about the sprinter's ethos. They critique each other's races and think, "That's as fast as he can run." But then you ask them how fast they can run and they say, "Oh, I could run 9.2 if I got it all together." [Maybe I even read that as a link from your blog?] [OK, found it, a year ago, and I paraphrased liberally: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6760031/is-fastest-human-ever-already-alive ]

David Coughlin said...

As I recall, Michael Jordan was an epic grinder, epically intense in practice.

Three weeks is not a grind. A year and a half of up and down training for the fast man on the planet in order to get ready to hone the knife to razor sharpness in 3 weeks, that is a grind. The grind is in the discipline that it takes to do the right things. I think that you let the kid undersell you on just what it takes to get to apex sprint shape. [Bodybuilders are completely obsessed with their diets because they are looking for a specific adaptation that depends on what they eat; world class sprinters, less so.]

Richard Seiter said...

This NYT page has a graphic showing times (as meters behind Bolt in 2012) for ALL the Olympic 100M medal winners. Worth a look:
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/08/05/sports/olympics/the-100-meter-dash-one-race-every-medalist-ever.html

Richard Seiter said...

Two books on this topic (the second is in French):
http://www.amazon.com/Taboo-Athletes-Dominate-Sports-Afraid/dp/158648026X

http://www.amazon.fr/gp/product/2246785316

dwbudd said...

The following comment on book number two really says it all:

"Le cadre du "politiquement correct" rend le traitement de la question très périlleux."

dwbudd said...

Precisely; Michael Jordan was blessed with awesome abilities, but the idea that he just rolled out of bed and showed up at the gym? Often, high achievers will downplay the role of hard work in their accomplishments.

dwbudd said...

All I can say about the cartoon is "wow."

Richard Seiter said...

Indeed ;-) I guess this particular form of PC has not infected the French as much as the Americans. It might have something to do with the French sprinter Christophe Lemaitre being the second person not of Western African ancestry to run a sub-10s 100M:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christophe_Lemaitre
Some more commentary about the book: http://www.france24.com/en/20120805-france-usain-bolt-black-sprinters-dominate-olympics

botti said...

Jon Entine has written a number of articles and a book (entitled 'Taboo') covering those issues and bio cultural athletic hotspots.

InfinityBall said...

The first two places were taken by men from an island of 1.2 million males, some fraction of which are of suitable age to sprint at a top level. I'm sure a Bolt is much more uncommon than a Phelps, but those estimates seem pretty implausible.

steve hsu said...

It's possible both Blake and Bolt are dopers. I'm assuming Bolt is not, but I don't know (for that matter I don't know about Phelps, and didn't know about Armstrong for many years). If Blake is a doper he's comparable to Ben Johnson in talent level -- without the steroids he'd be good but not great. The fact that the Jamaicans (both M and W) have been so successful in the sprints in the past few years makes me very suspicious. In any case, I am confident that there are very few males in the US, Europe or Asia (for example) that can run under 9.7s without drugs...

Yan Shen said...

Not sure where I heard this from, but I seem to recall reading a while back that some baseball player estimated that probably around 50% of major league baseball players used performance enhancing drugs. Not sure how accurate that estimate is, but it's definitely mind-boggling. It almost makes you wonder whether or not at a certain threshold the playing field isn't perversely level again. If close to 100% of people in a sport dope, philosophically is it really "cheating"?

Louis Burke said...

Would you agree then that this underlies an unfairness in the modern Olympics? Or even a futility? Essentially we're giving out medals to people with a strong predisposition for performance regardless of work? Bolt, Phelps etc. are the fittest phenotypes, for want of a better word, in the fitness landscape for their respective problem domains/sports.

Louis Burke said...

What do you mean by that?

steve hsu said...

When you are young a lot happens in a year and it seems like a long time. When you are older it seems years go by much more quickly.

Richard Seiter said...

Steve, do you have a sense of how exactly it varies with age? I was curious (I'm about your age and the effect is distressingly obvious), but it looks like the answer is not clear cut:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_perception#Long-term

Iamexpert said...

It would be interesting to take a sample of totally random people, randomly selected from all over the world, force them to train as runners, and then calculate the mean and SD of their distribution of post-training speeds. Would Bolt be more than 6 SD (one in a billion if the distribution is normal) faster than the average human?

David Coughlin said...

(It's instructive that Bolt's back flared up in the most important race
of his life. In the weeks before the Olympics, Ralph Mann, a respected
biomechanist for USA Track and Field, talked about Bolt's mechanics and
injury problems. "You have to remember [Bolt has] been a freak for a
long time,'' said Mann to SI's David Epstein. "We knew he was this good
when he was younger. You have to remember that kind of power over that
kind of frame, you're just on the edge of injury, and he's always been
that way. From the time he was 16 to 22 he was constantly injured. ...
He's basically had two-and-a-half healthy seasons, and the first one was
when he was 16.")

From [tracking number on the end is from the cut-and-paste]: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/olympics/2012/writers/tim_layden/08/09/bolt-200-meter-win-gets-double/index.html#ixzz23AeayktX

Louis Burke said...

All the more reason to invest in health and life extension I guess.

David Coughlin said...

I will link this brief on innate-talent v. work-hard, http://practicaltheory.org/blog/2012/08/23/genius-v-expertise/ , and only add that you have to have both if you really going to move the edge.

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