Main | Monday, August 18, 2008

Daily Grumble

As much as I admire the Olympic accomplishments of Michael Phelps, I can't help but wonder about his being proclaimed the greatest Olympian of all time just because of his medal count. Others are going even farther and calling him the greatest athlete of all time. By what measure? Phelps spent a total of, what, ten minutes in the pool? How does that make him a greater athlete than a soccer player who battled for ten hours to reach the medal podium? Or a tennis player who had to play multiple hours-long matches to get that one medal? There are 17 gold medals available in men's swimming, far more than any other sport. Phelps has the most medals because the medals were there to win.

UPDATE: The New York Times has an interesting article on this subject, asking Olympic historians and sports writers who they think is the greatest Olympian ever. Only one picks Phelps.
Are Phelps’s accomplishments in the pool more impressive than the nine gold medals won by Carl Lewis and Paavo Nurmi in track and field? Or greater than Eric Heiden’s five victories, from 500 meters to 10,000 meters, in speedskating at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.?

Does Jesse Owens’s refutation of Aryan supremacy, by winning four gold medals before the Hitler viewing stand at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, give him a moral validity that supersedes Phelps’s athletic legitimacy? For his part, Phelps is avoiding the debate. “I just swim,” Phelps said Thursday. “I don’t think about it.”

David Wallechinsky, the vice president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, gives the nod for greatest Olympians to Lewis and Nurmi. His point is this: It is much easier to win multiple medals in sports like swimming and gymnastics than in track and field, because there are more individual events. And fewer countries produce elite swimmers than runners, making track a more democratic sport.

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