What makes a great Olympian?

Michael Phelps’ medal haul is nothing to be sniffed at, but there’s more to greatness than the quantity of golds.

Duleep Allirajah

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Is Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian of all time? His record-breaking haul of eight gold medals at Beijing has ignited a debate about the American swimmer’s place in the Olympic pantheon.

Also in the frame is Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. His sprint double in Beijing was nothing short of awesome. Breaking both the 100 and 200 metres world records in the process was jawdroppingly sensational. And then there’s the Chinese ping-pong bloke whom Brendan O’Neill enthuses about in The ping pong and the passion. No, I’ve never heard of him either, but apparently he’s half-decent.

I’m always a little bit hesitant about entering these greatest Olympian debates. In my opinion we’re far too hasty to canonise our sport stars these days. Like those ubiquitous polls to determine the greatest song or album there’s usually a chronic absence of historical perspective. So, by what criteria should greatness be judged? Is it, for example, a simple case of counting the number of medals? Phelps has now racked up more gold medals than any previous competitor (14 in total) and has also broken Mark Spitz’s record for the most medals won in a single tournament. I’d say that puts him on the shortlist. But the greatest?

If we’re counting medals of any colour then Russian gymnast Larissa Latynina holds the record – 18 in total, including nine golds, over three Games. Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi was no slouch either, collecting 12 medals – including nine golds – at three Games. But is it about medal count or longevity of success? Carl Lewis won nine gold medals but did so over four consecutive Games. And then, of course, there’s our own national treasure, Steven Redgrave, who won five consecutive gold medals in rowing.

All these Olympians are undoubtedly titans in their respective disciplines. But isn’t measuring a swimmer like Phelps against an athlete like Carl Lewis a bit like comparing apples with pears? I’m not saying that winning eight swimming golds is easy. It’s an incredible achievement which may never be bettered. But given the number of pool events it’s more likely that a swimmer can win multiple medals than an athlete. The Times writer Matthew Syed argues that Phelps’ achievement is devalued by what he calls ‘Olympic hyperinflation’. ‘If we are being honest, even the diversity of swimming disciplines has more than a touch of the absurd about it’, wrote Syed. ‘Translated into track and field, we would have the 100 metres sprint (renamed freestyle), the backward dash, the sideways shuttle and the sprint for those who like to run while rotating their arms like Mick Channon’ (1).

Medals are indicators of greatness, but they are rather crude measures which don’t tell the whole story. Although superficially equivalent, some medals have greater currency than others; they have an intangible value which isn’t expressed in the medals tables.

So, what do I mean by value? Here you need to examine the specific event. How tough, for example, is the competition? How hard is it to win gold? Since the Olympics were far less competitive in Paavo Nurmi’s day, are his middle- and long-distance running medals really worth the same as the equivalent medals today? I doubt it.

We also need to consider the status and popularity of the event. Forget the International Olympic Committee: how seriously do we take the sport in question? Call me an Olympic purist, but a track and field gold medal is always going to be worth more than a dozen medals at BMX cycling, beach volleyball, or dare I say, it, ping pong.

Don’t just take my word for it. Look at the media coverage. Great Britain won four gold medals on Tuesday. Cyclist Chris Hoy became the first Briton to win three gold medals in a Games since 1908. But the front page story was Christine Ohuruogu’s victory in the women’s 400 metres. All medals are equal, but sprinting will always trump cycling.

Or take Steve Redgrave’s feat of winning gold at five successive Games. Undoubtedly, the ability to dominate a sport over a long period of time is a measure of greatness. But, I’d still rate track and field domination more highly than a string of rowing golds. That’s why, for my money, Daley Thompson’s two decathlon golds in successive Games are worth more than Redgrave’s five in a row.

Why? Because athletics is universal whereas rowing is an exclusive, minority sport. As Matthew Syed put it: ‘I suggest that Redgrave would not have qualified for a single Olympic final, let alone won any, had rowing been accessible to, say, one per cent of the population of Africa – a continent that dominates running, in which the only equipment needed is decent shoes.’ (2) This isn’t a chippy snipe at middle class sports. I don’t think rowing should lose its Olympic status just because it’s largely the preserve of posh boys. It’s just that the more universal or widely played the sport, the tougher the competition is likely to be, and therefore the greater the achievement it is to bag an Olympic gold.

Olympians like Phelps or Lewis who stockpile medals in the way that Imelda Marcos collected shoes certainly belong in the pantheon. But greatness is not simply a question of medals or world records. The greatest Olympians are also those who alter our assumptions about what is humanly possible. They do not simply win gold or break world records; they have achieved a sporting paradigm shift. This is what long jumper Bob Beamon did when he smashed the world record with the ‘perfect jump’ in Mexico ‘68. So, too, Michael Johnson when he shattered the 200 metres world record in Atlanta in 1996. And Ben Johnson’s awesome performance in the 100 metres final in Seoul in 1988 would be up there if not for his failed drugs test.

At the risk of premature canonisation, I’d place Usain Bolt’s sprint double in this category. His 100 metres victory might have earned him pantheon admission in its own right. It wasn’t so much that he broke a world record in the blue riband Olympic final, but the manner in which he did it: he left the rest of the field trailing in his wake. It was the glorious insouciance, the outrageous showboating as he crossed the line. Have you ever seen anything like it in an Olympic final? But, if that wasn’t enough, to then go out and break Michael Johnson’s apparently impregnable world record in the 200 metres final was astonishing. ‘Bolt was simply incredible. This guy is Superman Two’, said Johnson himself.

We’re too promiscuous in our use of superlatives. But, for once, the superlatives are entirely justified.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Claim that Michael Phelps will be the greatest is diminished by IOC excesses, The Times (London), 14 August 2008

(2) Higher, faster, yes. More meritocratic? No, The Times (London), 16 August 2008

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