Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal of the 2008 Olympics and I couldn’t be happier. As I said in a previous post, Phelps’ middle class roots make us feel he’s one of us and his great personality makes us root all the harder for him. I must admit I was relieved when the American team won the relay last night and Phelps made it eight out of eight. I know they were favored to win but I remembered the earlier relay which Phelps and the U.S won only because of a superlative final leg by Jason Lezak. It would have been too, too cruel if the U.S had somehow lost last night with Phelps oh-so-close to his goal. Anyway, they won, Phelps won, and I am very, very happy for them.
Now all the comparisons have started and we are seeing news items calling Phelps ” The Greatest Swimmer of all Time” and even ” The Greatest Athlete Ever”. Much as I admire Michael Phelps, that second accolade is pure hogwash. ” The Greatest Swimmer ” ? Probably. ” The Greatest Athlete ? No.
Why do I feel he should not be anointed as ” The Greatest Athlete ever”? there are many reasons…..
1) Greatness isn’t judged by the number of gold medals. We Americans love sports statistics perhaps because they are a big part of our most popular sports: baseball, football and basketball. However useful stats may be in judging running backs or pitchers or rebounders, they are not a good way to compare athletes in other sports. About gold medals: It is less difficult to earn multiple medals in swimming than it is in many other sports. For instance, in track there are only two sprints( 100M and 200M) ; in swimming there are two sprints for each of 4 strokes, in addition to the 50 M . There are few sports in which athletes can compete in as many as eight events , even if they were so-minded.
2) It’s impossible to compare athletes in different sports. How can you compare a high jumper with a swimmer, a basketball player with a wrestler ? They are completely different disciplines requiring different skills.
3) You can’t compare athletes from different eras. Modern training techniques, more knowledge of nutrition and , in particular, changes in equipment give today’s athletes a decided advantage over their predecessors. For instance, the world record in the pole vault is almost 19 feet yet many consider Cornelius Warmerdam the greatest ever polevaulter even though he never exceeded 15 feet 8 inces. Why ? Well, it’s because he used a bamboo pole; the moderns use fiberglass poles whose flexibilty and whip enable them to soar to greater heights. In the 1940’s when Warmerdam competed, the fiberglass pole had not been invented. In swimming,as sportscasters have noted, the new swimsuits seem to have aided Phelps and others to swim faster .
4) All gold medals are not equal. In order to win one gold medal in the decathlon, an athlete has to compete in ten different events in a two day time frame. Some events demand speed ( 100 meters, 110 hurdles, long jump) , some demand stamina ( 400 meters,1,500 meters), others strength ( shot put, discus, javelin) and still others technique ( pole vault, high jump). Winning gold in the decathalon is more demanding than winning a gold in practically any other Olympic event. Many thus consider the winner of the decathlon the greatest athlete of the day.
As much as I love and admire Michael Phelps, he isn’t ” The Greatest Athlete ever” . It is just not posssible to bestow that accolade on anybody, not on Phelps, not on Larissa Latynina and certainly not on Muhammad Ali though he is fond of calling himself ” The Greatest.” There are just too many elite athletes in too many different sports for us to designate one of them as The Best. Why compare at all ? Lets celebrate them all, each of their extra-ordinary achievements glorious in it’s own way.
Tomorrow: Michael Phelps and his Rivals