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Steve Kelley: At the Olympics

Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist for 25 years, is covering his eighth Olympics. He'll share news and tidbits as the Beijing Games unfold.

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August 14, 2008 8:26 PM

Behind all the world records

Posted by Steve Kelley

Records are falling like bowling pins inside the Water Cube. So many so fast that they've become expected, like going to a baseball game and knowing you're going to see a no-hitter. If someone merely sets an Olympic record, the time practically is greeted with groans.

Swimmers are setting world records for world records. It's getting ridiculous.

In the space of a half hour on Friday morning, Rebecca Soni broke a world record in the 200-meter breaststroke, swimming it in 2:20.22, The old record was set more than two years ago by Australia's Leisel Jones, who finished second in this race.

Soni's record was set at 10:12 a.m. here.

Fans had barely digested their breakfasts.

At 10:19, Ryan Lochte broke the world record in the 200-meter backstroke, beating his own record set in Melbourne in 2007.

After a brief pause to celebrate the 19th and 20th world records in this pool, Michael Phelps (who else?) set the third and final world record of the day in the 200 individual medley, beating his record set in Omaha at the Trials in July, swimming 1:54.23, which experts tell me is very fast.

It was an American world-record hat trick and it happened in a half hour.

We're learning a lot about physics at these Olympic Games. Maybe you once thought swimming was the lowest of low-tech sports. Swimmers shaved their bodies, made themselves sleek as dolphins and --provided they weren't using performance-enhancing drugs -- just tried to naturally out-stroke each other. It was simple.

It wasn't like track and field, where a new shoe could be designed, or a new composition track created that could shave split-seconds off world records. You don't see records falling in track. At this Olympic meet, even with a fast track, fans will feel lucky if one or two world records fall.

When records become expected, the amazingness of the feat should softened a bit. Germany's Britta Steffen only set an Olympic mark, winning the 100-meter freestyle in 53.12 and I almost felt like asking her at the news conference what went wrong.

Phelps' sixth gold medal Friday also was his sixth world record. His win in the 200 individual medley was the 21st world record from this meet.

Horse racing fans understand the difference between a fast track and a sloppy one. But a fast pool? What is happening?

I remember swimming in a pool in Baden Baden, Germany that had these powerful jets that pushed you faster around the pool's circuitous course. But there are no jets here. And, unless one or more of these record-holders comes back with a dirty drug test, we have to assume the records are falling naturally.

So, no jets. No drugs.

Is it just fast water? Is swimming in this pool like swimming inside some energy drink?

The answer appears to be, "yes."

This pool is a meter deeper than most Olympic-sized pools. Deep water is good. I know it because that's what the swimmers say.

And this pool has 10 lanes, which means the outside lanes on both sides are empty, creating less splashing. A smoother pool is a faster pool.

And then there is the matter of these suits, the new Speedo LZR racer. I've heard that even Pork Chop Womack could slip into one of these suits and challenge world records. It's all about the drag, man, and these suits have no drag. It's better than swimming in the nude -- or so I'm told.

There is one more reason that seems to make perfect sense and has nothing to do with physics. Elite swimmers get paid now, so they have more time to devote strictly to swimming. Phelps, for instance, will earn about $5 million this year, not counting the $1 million bonus Speedo has promised him if he wins eight Olympic golds.

(That seems inevitable as high tide now, doesn't it?)

Remember, back in the day -- 1972 to be specific -- there was very little corporate sponsorships. A swimmer couldn't make a living in the pool. Mark Spitz went into dentistry because he couldn't make money swimming. And back then, I'm sure, setting world records was like pulling teeth.

It's hard to draw a conclusion from all of this. If every night a batter hit for the cycle. If Kobe Bryant scored 50 points in every Lakers' game. If Tiger Woods broke course records every time he teed it up, at some point all of the drama would be gone.

But that isn't happening at the Water Cube. Trust me, I've seen more world records fall this week than I've seen in the rest of my life. And whether it's Soni, Lochte or Phelps, it still feels thrilling.

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