Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Great Olympic Streaks: Men's Swimming

Today and tomorrow, we will discuss great Summer Olympic streaks in men's and women's swimming, respectively. Two names obviously leap to the top of the list of great male Olympic swimmers, Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz.

What else can one say about Phelps, a swimmer who has won 14 Olympic gold medals (6 in 2004 and 8 in 2008)? These gold medals consist of 9 in individual events and 5 in relays. Phelps will be entered in 7 events in the upcoming Games (4 individual and 3 relays), raising the possibility that he could leave London with an unimaginable 21 career Olympic gold medals!

Phelps's dominance in his specialty events extends beyond the Olympic Games (OG), of course, also appearing in World Championship (WC) and Pan Pacific (PP) Championship meets (one of the three meets is held each year). The following chart shows his performances in his four main events, the 100- and 200-meter races of the butterfly stroke, and the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys (which consist of laps in each of the four strokes: freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, and breaststroke).

Phelps has won the 200 butterfly the last 8 times he's swum it in major international meets. Previously, he had won the 200 individual medley 7 straight times, before losing in the 2011 World Championships to Ryan Lochte.

Thirty-six years before Phelps won 8 gold medals in a single Olympics, Spitz won 7 in the 1972 Munich Games. Spitz had also captured a pair of relay golds in the 1968 Mexico City Games. In '72, Spitz's golds came from two freestyle races (100 and 200), two butterfly races (100 and 200), and three relays.

In addition to their own winning ways, Spitz and Phelps also contributed to a larger U.S. streak spanning nearly 50 years. The U.S. has won all 12 Olympic men's 4 x 100 medley relays ever contested (excluding 1980 when the Americans boycotted the Moscow Games). 

I have enjoyed the feats of Phelps and Spitz not only as a sports fan, but also as a statistical analyst. Shortly after the 2008 Beijing Olympics ended, I had my statistics class conduct comparisons of Phelps's and Spitz's swimming times, in a way that attempted to account for improvements in training, facilities, etc., between 1972 and 2008.

Aquatic sports also include diving. According to a Yahoo! News series on the Olympics, America's Greg Louganis in 1984 "swept the golds in the 3m springboard and the 10m platform in Los Angeles, becoming the first man to do so in 56 years. Four years later in Seoul, at the advanced diving age of 28 and competing against opponents half his age, he repeated this two-gold feat..."


G Wolf said...

Am I missing something? It looks like Phelps had won six in a row, not eight.

alan said...

It looks like you may be referring to Phelps's results in the 200-meter butterfly in major international meets. The key point is that Phelps skipped the 200 fly in the 2005 World Championships. On the Wikipedia page about Phelps, it says:

"At the 2005 World Championship Trials, Phelps decided to drop his specialty events, the 400-meter individual medley and the 200-meter butterfly, and experiment with the 400-meter freestyle and the 100-meter freestyle."

If one excludes the year he skipped the 200 fly (because, after all, nobody beat him), then the streak is eight straight.

On the other hand, if one's criterion is that he ENTER and WIN an event, then the streak is indeed six straight.

Thanks for your comment!