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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sporting performance, then and now

I’m joining this discussion too late, but in light of the gold medal game, there has been some discussion Kobe’s boast that this years U.S. Olympic basketball team would have been able to beat the 1992 Dream Team. Most commentators find the claim ludicrous, and I must admit that, overall, even I am still pretty skeptical of it.

But I want to make the point that it is not as ludicrous as it might first seem. To be sure, the Dream Team had 11 hall of famers, and it featured some of the legendary players of basketball. But how much do legends count with the progress of time?

Unfortunately, basketball doesn’t have absolute metrics by which we can measure competition across time. So I chose swimming instead, where we do have an absolute metric in the finishing time. In particular, I chose the men’s 4x100m medley relay, on the theory that it is a team event with each member serving a slightly different role. So how does the 2012 U.S. medley relay team compare to the 1992 U.S. medley relay team?

Well, the 1992 U.S. medley relay team won the gold medal and set a world record in a time of 3:36.93. It is fair to say that they were the dominant team of the time, though not quite at Dream Team levels. But the 2012 U.S. medley relay team easily beat them, with a time 3:29.35. The progression of two decades means that the absolute tip top of 1992—the world record of the time—falls far behind the gold medal performance today.

One might reply that the comparison is not quite fair, given that the 2012 U.S. medley relay team has its own legend in Michael Phelps. But, to give one an idea of how much two decades means, consider that the qualifying time in the medley relay this year was 3:34.46. The world-record setting, gold-medal winning 1992 U.S. medley relay team would not even have qualified for the 2012 relay final, let alone beaten the 2012 U.S. team. They would have lost to lowly Italy and barely beat Brazil. Viewed in this light, Kobe’s boast doesn’t seem nearly as ridiculous at it seemed at first blush.

Posted by Tun-Jen Chiang on August 12, 2012 at 03:05 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: online to-do list | Aug 13, 2012 12:45:31 AM

Innovation in basketball equipment began and ended with the Reebok Pump, in my esteemed opinion.

Posted by: andy | Aug 13, 2012 12:28:25 AM

Anon: Pro basketball is nowhere near as physical as it was 20 years ago, with rule changes to eliminate hand-checking on defense, hard fouls, etc.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 12, 2012 4:44:16 PM

I know a bit about swimming, nothing about basketball. One thing though that occurs to me is that independent of advances in athletic ability, there have been lots of changes in swimming independent of athletic ability which have improved those times over the past 20 years. A few examples that occur to me are advances in swimsuit technology and rule changes (for example, the much discussed single dolphin kick in the breaststroke, which is now allowed). Knowing nothing about basketball, I would be curious to know if the same types of changes have occurred over the past 20 years in sneaker technology or rule changes that make the game more conducive to more points.

Posted by: anon | Aug 12, 2012 3:42:37 PM

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