Tuesday August 10th, 2010

Surely the Olympic rings were turned on their sides this past week. Two giants of their respective sports suffered rare defeats when Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps each lost races.

Bolt was outsprinted by Tyson Gay at the DN Galan meeting in Stockholm on Friday. Phelps dropped a 200-meter individual medley race to Ryan Lochte at the U.S. national championships in Irvine, Calif. These outcomes may seem surprising, but in fact these results were no surprise and no shame. Gay and Lochte are, of course, world-class (both former world champions; Lochte also an Olympic champion) and both are like Frazier to the Ali they are chasing.

By his own admission, Bolt had been feeling "imperfect" and vulnerable this season. After the race he blamed his lower back for his poor form and decided on Monday night to skip the rest of the outdoor season, including meets to which he had already committed in Zurich and Brussels.

Gay's plan of attack in Stockholm was perfect. Get out fast and stay ahead. With his 6-foot-5 frame, Bolt's starts are sometimes iffy. In Stockholm, Gay was already a step ahead by the time the Jamaican began to stretch out his stride and hit full speed roughly a third of the way into the race. Gay went to the arms early and crossed in 9.84 seconds.

Bolt eased up in the final stride or two, perhaps knowing he'd lost his first dash in two years. He crossed in 9.97, well off the 9.82 he ran in Lausanne last month. Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago was third in 10.10, so it was essentially the two-man race that had been expected ever since Bolt's countryman, Asafa Powell, pulled out of the event with a sore back.

"This is my easy season," Bolt said afterward. "If you don't beat me this season, it's not going to happen next season."

It was the second time Bolt suffered defeat in the ancient stadium where Jim Thorpe ran, jumped and threw his way into the history books 98 years ago. Bolt said an Achilles tendon injury had been hampering his training, but the back kept him from generating his usual power over the second half of the race.

With only the Pan Pacific swimming championships -- rather than an Olympics or world championship -- to look forward to this summer, Phelps had not been in peak physical condition as he usually is during major years of his quadrennial cycles. His trip to nationals was marked by both a piece of history and disappointment.

The man with 14 Olympic gold medals on his mantel actually reached a new milestone last Wednesday. Phelps won the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter butterfly at the U.S. nationals to increase his career total at the competition to 49, one more than Tracy Caulkins. That mark should only grow with two more years left before the London Games. He won his 50th title in the 100-meter butterfly later in the meet.

Phelps has won at least one title in nine of the 13 men's events: the 100-, 200- and 400-meter freestyles; and the 100 and 200 in the backstroke, butterfly and individual medley. He has never won one in the longest and shortest freestyle races (the 50 or the 1,500); nor in either of the breaststrokes, his weakest individual stroke. That still leaves him behind Caulkins in one measure. The 47-year-old, who now lives in Australia, remains the only U.S. swimmer, male or female, to have won at least one national crown in the IM and each of the individual strokes.

She also set at least one U.S. record in each of the strokes and in the individual medleys, the discipline in which she captured double gold at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

Phelps bemoaned his less-than-Phelpsian form in winning those races and his relative rust finally caught up to him in the 200-meter individual medley, a race he had never lost at a major competition until Lochte topped him in Irvine. Phelps was in decent shape over the first 100 meters, holding leads of .31 after the butterfly and .29 after the backstroke. But Lochte shot ahead by .47 after the breaststroke leg and made a great turn at the third wall, giving him a chance to increase the lead over the final 50 meters. Lochte finished in 1:54.84, followed by Phelps, more than a second behind at 1:55.94.

Yes this isn't Phelps at his best, but for now, Lochte has raised his game to a higher level and won't be slowing down before London. For Phelps, who has already indicated he won't chase the 400 IM again in two years, it leaves him with a decision about whether to continue with the shorter medley or drop breaststroke training (and possibly backstroke training) altogether to concentrate on his two best individual strokes.


The Commonwealth Games that are set to take place in Delhi in October have become an uncommon mess. Last year, the Indian government released a report noting that 13 of the 19 venues where the athletes from 72 nations were set to compete were behind schedule. Organizing committee treasurer Anil Khanna recently resigned amid charges of corruption, and organizers are under fire over suggestions that they violated the country's labor laws in the sloppy handling of games-related construction that has claimed several lives due to building accidents and unsanitary conditions.


Though some in the Olympic world feel that softball and baseball can only regain admission to the games as a unit -- in effect, under a single sports umbrella -- the sports will continue their long road to reapplication independent of one another. International Baseball Federation President Riccardo Fraccari recently reached out to International Softball Federation President Don Porter in hopes of putting together a unified proposal to bring both sports back onto the Olympic program for the 2020 Games, telling Porter in a letter that a joint initiative was "the only way back into the Olympic program."

The IOC will vote on any potential changes to that year's program in 2013. Still, Porter, with the backing of the International Softball Federation board of directors, recently replied that his committee would not be willing to embrace a joint bid.


Even though it's only the summer, the U.S. luge team suffered two key losses as a pair of Olympians, Courtney Zablocki and Megan Sweeney, announced their retirements from the sport last week. Zablocki, 30, narrowly missed a medal at the Turin Games in 2006 when she placed fourth behind a trio of Germans. The Colorado National Guard member had worked in Home Depot's gardening department to pay for her training expenses before the Olympics. She needed surgery to relieve pain on both of her hands in 2009. Sweeney, 22, can now step aside for younger sister, Emily, the woman she ironically defeated in a special race off in Lillehammer last season to determine the finals berth on the U.S. Olympic team. Emily will continue to race as a junior.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.