Monday, August 18, 2008


BBC examines the issue of Phelps and the Greatest Olympian tag.

For some people, it's a question that's already been answered.

The greatest Olympian of all time? Michael Phelps, simply because of those unmatched 11 gold medals.

Done deal. Or is it?

By some calculations, Phelps isn't even the most successful Olympic athlete of all time. Gymnast Larissa Latynina has the bigger overall medal haul by five, even if she has a mere nine golds sprinkled in among her total of 18.

Phelps, of course, might bag another three in the next few days - but stats can only ever tell part of the story.

If we're talking Olympics, there are other factors we need to bring in - the competitiveness of the event, the difficulty of competing in multiple medal races, the era in which it took place.

Then there are the more nebulous aspects of being a great Olympian: sportsmanship, demeanour, post-career reputation.

Let's line up a few contenders.

In terms of medals alone, Carl Lewis's record is impossible to argue with: nine golds, spread over 12 years, with seven of them coming in individual events. Phelps currently has six golds from solo swims and five from relays.

Lewis also scores well for consistency, winning his first long jump gold at the age of 23 and his fourth aged 35.

Whether his golds in Los Angeles are devalued by the Eastern Bloc boycott is debatable. He had won the 100m, 4x100m and long jump at the inaugural world championships the previous year and had been ranked no.1 in the world over 100m since 1981.

What is unarguable is that he tested positive for banned substances three times before the 1988 US Olympic trials, initially being banned from the Seoul Olympics before being let off with a warning.

Lewis's own reaction - "There were hundreds of people getting off," does little to protect his reputation, and brings to mind the famous line from Ed Moses after the '84 Olympics, when he said of his team-mate: "Carl rubs it in too much. A little humility is in order."

Jesse Owens only ever had the chance to compete at one Games.

After his four golds in Berlin - and three Olympic records - he found himself banned by US authorities for running in commercial events, and eventually suffered the indignity of racing against horses to make ends meet.


When Mark Spitz won seven gold medals I don't recall him being called "The Greatest Olympian". Now that Michael Phelps won eight, he is called one. Phelps is the greatest swimmer and the winningest Olympian of all time of course. Is it because NBC calls Phelps the greatest everyone in the world should just accept it? No way. At least not yet. I mean no disrespect to Phelps. He is a legend and a testament to hardwork and all-around good guy (at least the image that he projects) maybe now is not the right time to call him the greatest. Some people are using the term "greatest" lightly these days.

Here's Associated Press take on this matter:

Phelps was able to win eight golds in nine days because, yes, he’s the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time. It also helped that his toughest race came first in the 400 individual medley and he excelled in events that were spread out at just the right intervals.

But greatest Olympian ever? No.

Give that nod to Carl Lewis, who won nine gold medals over four Olympics, including the long jump four games in a row. Unlike Phelps, Lewis won his medals doing two very different things, using his speed to win the 100 and 200 meters and his leaping ability for the long jump.

He likely would have had even more medals but the United States boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow where Lewis had qualified in the long jump and as a member of the 400 relay team.

“I don’t want to appear to be putting Phelps down,” said David Wallechinsky, the Olympic historian who has literally written the book on the games. “But I need a little more longevity to name him the best Olympian ever.”

The people at NBC would certainly debate that because they built the first week of the Olympics around Phelps’ quest for eight golds, scoring a ratings bonanza that will pale only to the endorsements Phelps will haul in after the games.

But if George Eyser were alive and competing today, the network would have made him a hero, too, if only to tug at America’s heart. Eyser won six medals in 1904 in gymnastics, despite a left leg made of wood after his original one was run over by a train.

Wallechinsky believes a case as the greatest ever could also be made for Finland’s Paavo Nurmi, who won nine gold medals in middle- and long-distance running in the 1920s. While much has been made of the 17 times Phelps had to swim in these games, he never did anything like Nurmi did when he won both the 1500 meters and 5000 meters within two hours of each other in 1924.

Nurmi would likely have won even more, but he was banned from the 1932 games in Los Angeles on a 13-12 vote by Olympic officials who declared him a professional after he appeared in advertisements.

And who knows what Jesse Owens might have done had world events not denied him the chance to compete past the 1936 games, where he ran and jumped his way to four gold medals under political and racial pressures that Phelps never had to face.


I'm writing this with respect to the heroes of the past who are almost forgotten. Drowned by the massive hype NBC is perpetuating to boost its ratings. I'm not blind like Kyle Fitzsimmons who despite Manny's achievement calls the latter a hype because he is a bigot. I just wish the greatest tag isn't bestowed on one who won more gold medals for other athletes don't have that opportunity.

Come to think of it, I admire Jessie Owens even more!

Related Posts by Categories

No comments: