What a great kick-off day for the Olympics in China, even with the almost surreal distractions of the John Edwards sorry soap-opera, and the deadly chess-game being played by Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia.
None of it takes away from the record-breaking kick-off achievement by Michael Phelps, as this account from New Zealand summarizes:
Phelps, trying to break Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals at an Olympic Games, crushed his old mark of 4:05.25 in the 400 IM, set in June at the US Olympic trials."
If you want to understand how unique this accomplishment is, and how Phelps does it so well, read this extensive feature on him by the New York Times Sunday magazine from a couple of weeks ago...here's a flavor:
"“People aren’t made to move like that,” says Russell Mark, the biomechanics manager for USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body. Mark has a background in jet-engine design and a connoisseur’s eye for aquatic technique, but he assures me that the language of fluid dynamics barely describes the specific magic of a swimmer like Phelps.
Human beings, Mark says, are simply not designed to balance themselves horizontally in a moving, unstable medium in which they have only intermittent access to oxygen.
How, then, did Phelps manage so persuasively to make the unnatural seem natural? “The biomechanics of swimming is more theory than science,” Mark admits. “When water is surrounding someone, it’s really hard to measure what’s going on.” The pool, it turns out, is a place of vast ambiguity. The seemingly straightforward question of what transpires when Phelps swims gets very complicated very quickly and speaks to the mysterious nature of athletic achievement at its peak."
The piece goes into the complex physics and biology of what it takes to do what Phelps does, and it's clear that we're just barely beginning to understand the science from all these disciplines involved.
But it's a good start, as we get into what is really being achieved by all these remarkable 8,000 athletes from around the world, giving their all in Beijing over the next couple of weeks.