Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Phelps, the greatest?

I marvel at the accomplishments of Michael Phelps; he's doing things that are almost unimaginable, taking on the best in the world and beating them in world-record time. As of this writing, he is at five gold medals in Beijing, eleven overall, possibly heading toward eight during this week.

The eleven golds are the most ever won, beating the old record of nine, and has led to NBC's incessant touting of Phelps as the greatest Olympian ever (and any and all associated superlatives the announcers can think of). We're now free to forget about Mark Spitz, American swimmer, Carl Lewis, American sprinter and long jumper, Larissa Latynina, Soviet gymnast, and Paavo Nurmi, Finnish distance runner.

But, can we say that Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever, that he has exceeded the accomplishments of every single great athlete who has ever gone to the Games? I don't think we can say that, and I don't believe it's even a meaningful question.

Karch Kiraly won two gold medals in indoor volleyball in 1984 and 1988, then won another in beach volleyball in 1996. Every time he went to the Olympics, he won every gold he had a chance to win. What more could he have done? Unless the rules of volleyball are changed to permit the potential winning of eight golds in a single Games, there is no way to compare.

In so many sports, there is no opportunity to win multiple golds. In swimming, if you are good, it's almost impossible not to. The multiple events which differ only slightly in terms of skills needed to succeed, added to the existence of multiple relays, there's no way to compare any other Olympic sport to it.

100 years ago, Ray Ewry won the last of his eight gold medals over three Olympic Games (ten if you count results from the not-quite-official 1906 Games). All of them were in standing jumps, the kind of thing we did in gym class, but they're no longer contested in the Olympics. However, what if there had been team standing high jump, long jump, and triple jump? Ewry might well have won eight more. What if there had been medley jumping, another competition I just made up that adds together results of all three? Ewry could have won three more. What if there had been team medley jumping? Another three. It is not inconceivable that Ray Ewry, if track and field were organized like swimming, could have won a career 22 gold medals.

So let's just enjoy the exploits of Phelps, who is by any measure one of the greatest athletes ever. But any short list of the greatest Olympians of all time would not be short at all (no one even mentions Bjorn Daehlie, the Norwegian cross-country skier who won eight golds). It might be fun to sit around and debate, but let's not passively accept NBC's decision in the matter; after all, they please none of their sponsors if they contend that Ray Ewry is the greatest Olympian ever.

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