Story By Numbers

by Casey Barrett

Who cares about commentary, where are the results?

It’s all about the times. That is, the numbers, those down-to-the-hundredth facts, the ones that tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Results are what makes this sport so objectively beautiful. It’s a universal language where nothing can be lost in translation. There’s no third party trying to interpret what just happened on a field of play. No judges holding up subjective numbers or rankings that are inherently open for dispute. A clock starts with a beep, it records your progress at each wall, and it stops for good when your hand touches the finish. Beyond that, all else is just passing the time.

Which is why this site is about to add an essential element. A Results section. (Perhaps you’ve already noticed the toolbar additions above…)

In the coming weeks, a calendar of international meets will be posted. And in an Olympic year, there will be plenty. When that meet takes place, wherever it is in the world, a link will be posted where you can find the results. Sound simple enough? These results can be found elsewhere, I realize, but it frequently takes some searching. It won’t be all-encompassing, tracking down each and every regional junior meet from Florida to Shanghai; instead it will be a curated list of meets that fans of Olympic swimming might care about. Grand Prix’s, World Cups, Olympic Trials, NCAA’s, European Champs, etc.

As fun as it is to dissect and analyze the athletes and the issues, what else is there, really, that’s more interesting to swimmers than the actual results of a meet? That’s the first thing I look for, before I read anyone’s report on what happened… I want to read the story in the numbers. Because those numbers are far more honest and eloquent than what anyone could report.

It’s akin to baseball box scores, the past performances of race horses in the Daily Racing Form, or stock charts that look like numerical gibberish to those who can’t tease out fortunes from the hidden-in-plain-site patterns… For the savants of any sport or business, the numbers will always tell stories rich with life, a narrative without sentences but filled with deep meaning.

Take a look at the chart below. These are the results from the men’s 200 freestyle at the 2009 World Championships in Rome. It was perhaps the tipping point of the super suits, the race that forced regulation, the race that led Bob Bowman to threaten to take his proverbially ball and go home if something wasn’t done about those damn suits. Have a look:

What story do these numbers tell? Without any context whatsoever, you can look at Paul Biedermann’s splits and be astonished. Not only by the final time that shattered the world record by almost a second, but by each number that came before it. Going out in 50.12 to the feet. Widening his lead over the third 50 by a few tenths. But leaving Phelps within striking distance, just four-tenths back. The man with the greatest last wall in the history of the sport, the guy who breaks wills over the final 50 meters, the one who’s proven time and again that, if it’s close with a lap to go, it’s all over. But not this time…

On this day in Rome, Paul Biedermann made Phelps look human. An outmatched, outgunned, overwhelmed human. Biedermann came home in 25.70. Almost a second faster than Phelps. You don’t need to watch the race to get it. You don’t need NBC’s Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines to call the race and explain what just went down in order to get it. All you need to see is the numbers.

But do those numbers really tell the whole truth and nothing but? Not really. Do they point out that Biedermann was aided by a suit that seemed to enhance his performance – and his particular body type – more than that of his competitors? Do the numbers illustrate Phelps’ total lack of post-Olympic training? Well, they do if you know the context of the race. But the stand-alone digits only tell the story on the surface. They tell the story of a race – one that started and ended for all eight finalists in 106 seconds. And on that day, no matter what anyone was wearing, no matter who had trained more or less, here are the facts as laid out by the numbers: Paul Biedermann swam 200 meters faster than any human ever has before, while thrashing the greatest swimmer in history one lane over.

“Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime.”

Those lines came from the Koran, apparently. Not a text I can claim to know much about, but wise words worth contemplating. And worth considering the difference between the two perhaps… A sport, in its purest sense, can be distilled in simple numbers, in silence. In the results. A pastime? That’s what the rest of us do, trying to understand it.

Happy New Year, everyone.