Michael Phelps, the American who won his record-breaking nineteenth Olympic medal – his fifteenth gold – in the pool on Tuesday evening is unquestionably the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time. For some of us, however, that should automatically disqualify him from the contest to be named the Greatest Olympian. The problem is not the phenomenal Phelps, but his sport. Swimming is of course a proper sporting discipline that demands amazing athleticism (look at those remarkable new underwater TV pictures), unlike some of the ‘sitting-down sports’. Yet it is not one of the core Olympic events.
It is not just, as some point out, that top-level swimming largely remains the preserve of the white Western world (with the Chinese just breaking through), where it is possible for a few top competitors to pile up medals. It is that for some of us Olympic die-hards, only the classic events of the running track (and maybe the field) are at the heart of the Games. That is why even The Greatest, Muhammad Ali (who won his boxing gold as Cassius Clay in 1960), does not qualify as the Greatest Olympian. (And, incidentally, it is also why the five-times champion rower Sir Steven Redgrave should be stripped of his media-awarded title of Britain’s Greatest Olympian.)
Which runner you choose for that title is a subjective choice, not reducible to the numbers of medals won. Do Jesse Owens’ four golds, won at the ‘Nazi Olympics’ of 1936, mean more than the nine golds and one silver accumulated by Carl Lewis in the same sprinting and long jump events over four Games between 1984 and 1996? Should the title go to one of the amazing African distance runners, such as the Ethiopian 5,000- and 10,000-metre champion Kenenisa Bekele (three golds, one silver so far) or his predecessor Haile Gebrselassie (two golds), who flew the last 200 of a 10,000-metre final in 25.4 seconds? Or will Jamaica’s jawdropping Usain Bolt prove fit enough to retain his titles in London and make a bid to be the ultimate Olympian? Others might want to speak up for women such as Fanny Blankers-Koen, the Dutch ‘flying housewife’ of the 1948 London Olympics (four golds) or even the tragic Florence ‘Flo-Jo’ Griffith-Joyner (two golds), whose world records for the 100 and 200 metres, set at the 1988 Olympics, still stand.
Whoever you opt for as your Greatest Olympian, it must be more than a matter of counting the medals. And in this exclusive championship, medals won in the pool or the boxing ring or a boat, on a bike or a gymnastics mat, should not count at all.