x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Olympics: Faster, taller and stronger over time

Nostalgists must consider advances made in sports before declaring the Dream Team better than 2012 side, writes Mike Tierney.

Kobe Bryant, No 10, has had to endure defensive tactics not common during the playing days of the Dream Team, according to our columnist. Jae C Hong / AP Photo
Kobe Bryant, No 10, has had to endure defensive tactics not common during the playing days of the Dream Team, according to our columnist. Jae C Hong / AP Photo

Carl Lewis. Finest Olympics sprinter ever, right? Three gold medals and a silver, while thrice reducing the world record.

His swiftest 100 metres took 9.86 seconds. That is one-third of a second slower than Usain Bolt's best effort. Applying the magic of split-screen video: as Bolt hits the tape, Lewis is barely in the picture.

Comparing superlative sportsmen from different generations might be a frivolous exercise, but a counterweight is needed to the broadly accepted hypothesis that the Dream Team of the 1992 Barcelona Games would have this US Olympics basketball squad for lunch, supper and midnight snack.

Granted, the progression of athletes in team sports cannot be measured as indisputably as in track. The stopwatch is absolute. At his best, Lewis in the 1990s would finish in Bolt's exhaust.

In basketball, like other team sports, evaluating players from successive eras is more subjective. Who can say how Ted Williams would have hit against Nolan Ryan, or if Joe Montana would be amassing more touchdown passes than Peyton Manning?

Yet, in the Dream Team versus the 2012 Team debate, nostalgists are dismissing the reality that there are advances in every sport. The notion that better fitness training, nutrition and coaching means better players must be entertained.

In Beijing, swimmers rubbed a giant eraser through the record book, lowering 25 world marks in 34 events. In track, five performers were citius, altius, fortius – faster, higher, stronger – in their events than ever before.

Why would basketball players not follow a similar arc of improvement?

The terrific troika of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson rank 1-2-3 of all time – but only in the context of their period.

LeBron James represents the evolution of the basketball player, with a skill set and imposing physicality unimaginable when Jordan, Bird and Johnson roamed the earth.

Remember Dream Teamer Karl Malone, gifted but somewhat immobile at 2.06 meters tall and 113.6 kilograms heavy. James's vital statistics are nearly identical. One-on-one, the 1992 version of Malone against the present-day James, LeBron slays him.

Malone's shooting range extended to the top of the key. Kevin Durant, also the same height, can score from the parking area. It was unforeseeable 20 years ago, a big man as a long-distance deadeye approaching the gold medallist in air rifle.

Also, the art of defence has spun forward dramatically over two decades. The Dream Teamers never endured in your face tactics as displayed by James, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant – whose remarks in, uh, defence of the current Olympians ignited this kerfuffle.

Some ticks are in the Dream Team column. For intangibles – will to win, egos large enough (in a good way) to require a separate passport – MJ, Bird and Magic are without peer. Plus, a surplus of bigs would create match-up headaches.

Yet, on the flip side, Jordan and aides would be stressed defensively against their more versatile, quicker descendants. Dwight Howard, who would be manning Team USA's middle if not for back surgery, might even tip the scales in their favour.

Sentimentalists seem hasty in declaring a no-contest in this virtual reality game between the squads of 1992 and 2012. The Dream Team might win, but a sure thing?

In your dreams.

sports@thenational.ae

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