World records have become expected, nearly meaningless
BEIJING -- At 10:13 Monday morning in an Olympic swim stadium called the Water Cube, a world record was broken. Kirsty Coventry, a 24-year-old from Zimbabwe, touched first in a semifinal heat of the 100-meter backstroke, and the towering scoreboard froze numbers and letters next to her name: 58.77 WR. Three people in the audience clapped politely while yawning and checking spectator bus schedules.
Three more world records fell in the next 80 minutes: Kosuke Kitajima of Japan in winning the gold medal in the men's 100-meter breastroke, Eamon Sullivan of Australia on the opening 100-meter leg of the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay and, in that race, the United States' epic team record, which obliterated the old world record by a ridiculous 3.99 seconds (but which was far more memorable for the breathtaking swimdown U.S. anchor Jason Lezak laid on France and its anchor, former world-record holder Alain Bernard).
Customarily, in the Olympic realm, I am a track and field writer, but these are the Olympic Games, where versatility is required, and besides, the track meet does not begin until Friday morning in Beijing. I covered road cycling on the weekend for Sports Illustrated (cycling is track on bikes) and on Monday morning in Beijing I was in attendance at the Cube (swimming is track in the water). I also cover horse racing (which is track on horseback). But enough.
In my office back at home, I keep a weathered notebook page on which I record the track and field world records I've witnessed in person, during just shy of two decades covering major track and field competitions. Call me a romantic. There are eight world records on the list. On Monday at the Cube I saw four world records. Two others had been broken here on Sunday morning (Saturday night in the U.S.), for a total of six world records in two days.
Taking the point further: There are 32 events on the Olympic program, and in 26 of them, world records have been broken since the conclusion of the 2004 Athens Olympics.
The effect is a palpable devaluing of the standards. At the Water Cube, and at most major global swimming competitions, world records have been reduced to the level of the commonplace, diminished to the point where what should be hailed as historic is simply logged like a relay split. Even worse, gold medal performances that do not produce world records are even further devalued, as if it's almost embarrassing to stand on the podium without having broken the world record.
Swimmers, of course, do not agree with this thinking. "A world record means it's the fastest anyone has ever swum,'' said U.S. backstroker Aaron Piersol, who has four times broken -- and currently holds -- the world record in the 100-meter backstroke. "Hopefully people will realize it means that the sport is still progressing.''
There's no arguing that point. Swimming's world-record progression had been aided in recent years by pool technology (On Monday morning German head coach Orjan Madsen engaged two U.S. writers in a fascinating -- if semi-impenetrable -- explanation of why deeper pools, and wider ones, produce faster times). The same is true of suit technology, which took a Beamonesque leap forward this year with Speedo's LZR Racer. And stroke rules have changed as well, all making for faster swimming.
Yet there is another side to all of this that swimming seems to have escaped.
Back to track and field. On May 31 on Randall's Island in New York City, Usain Bolt of Jamaica ran 9.72 seconds to break Asafa Powell's 100-meter world record. It was an athletic performance of almost indescribable dimensions, as the 21-year-old, 6-foot-5 Bolt accelerated away from 100-meter world champion Tyson Gay of the U.S. and actually seemed to ease up at the line. As he finished, the scoreboard flashed 9.71, and then adjusted to reflect the actual time. It looked almost like athletic evolution in real time. A crowd packed with Jamaicans celebrated wildly.
The moment was rich and memorable in large part because world records in track and field are, in truth, very rare. In the 40 Olympic track and field events, 30 world records were set before 2000, and many long before that. If you are a track and field fan -- or a writer -- you are blessed to witness a record.
But it is not so simple. On the night in May, Bolt hadn't stopped sweating before cynical and oft-burned journalists began wondering whether Bolt's record had been fueled by steroids or some other banned substance. It is a knee-jerk reaction that follows almost any world record. "That just comes with the territory,'' Gay said during a Monday afternoon press conference attended by dozens of journalists from around the world.
But Gay also said, "When Usain Bolt ran 9.72, I realized in order to beat him, I was going to have to run 9.6.'' And if he does that, he will face ever more pressing suspicion that he's not clean. It's not fair, but it's reality.
There is remarkably little of this cynicism apparent in the swimming world. When asked about the possibility that a flood of world records might trigger steroid suspicion in swimming, German coach Madsen said, "I don't think in those terms. I think of the training process and the ability to compete.''
Swimming has experienced far fewer steroid problems than track and field, but it has not been without scandal. Most recently, U.S. swimmer Jessica Hardy tested positive for a banned substance at the U.S. Olympic Trials and is not competing in the Games. But in general, swimming records do not trigger a presumption of guilt.
Sadly, they also do not trigger wonder and appreciation. They are arithmetic signpost, devoid of emotion. They are expected. They are assumed. And they are, most of all, nearly meaningless.