Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Float Like a Butterfly, Swim Like a Bee

I'm kind of enthralled by this William Saletan article in Slate (plus followup) about whether Michael Phelps actually won the 100-meter butterfly. I don't mean that completely ironically, even if the proximate matter of concern seems ridiculous (triggering the wall sensor is part of the race, right?) Taking a step back, you're basically trying to take two athletic performances that are for all intents and purposes identical and to categorically declare one of them better than the other. It doesn't make any sense, and it's kind of funny that people do it.

I would argue that you can broaden this point and claim that longer, more complex sporting events are inherently better than simple races because they submerge these too-close-to-call situations. For example, in Super Bowl XL, as we all remember well, Ben Roethlisberger scored a fourth-down touchdown on a play that, when reviewed, showed that he was essentially exactly on the line marking the end zone: a too-close-to-call event. A hypothetical Seahawks proponent can protest that these are seven completely arbitrary points that may as well not be on the board, but he will also have to answer to the plays that set up the too-close-to-call event. Specifically, maybe a 3rd-and-28 37-yard completion to Hines Ward to the 3 would have been a good thing for the Seahawks defense to prevent.

And then there was this. Yeah, one could argue to the hypothetical Seahawks proponent. You like that?

The opposite strategy for more successfully evaluating races would be to make them more like the arts. Thus one would create room for aesthetic judgments that could qualify two performances that are equally assured on technical grounds; even if no consensus favorite emerges, a satisfying counterpoise of subjective evaluations can be struck. "Cavic can certainly swim," says Sportscaster A, "but Phelps has a way of expressing the 100-meter butterfly in a way I find personally more moving. Granted, it may be that, as an American, I relate more strongly to the theme of an American excelling at sports." "It's all moot," sniffs Sportscaster B, "No one can match Spitz's interpretations of the event from the 70s, and in any case the audience was larger and had better taste back then."

In short, although there is no good reason to challenge the viability of this particular Phelpsian gold medal, there are grounds to doubt the robustness of swimming as an effectively evaluable sporting event. A justifiable lack of confidence in the utility of the endeavor (even on its own terms) is, I add as a personal aside, why I have not committed myself to becoming a world-champion competitive swimmer.


Blogger Pete said...

I don't read much Slate, but that's about the dumbest article I've ever encountered over there. Especially the follow-up.

8/26/2008 10:48 PM  

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