After London 2012, who’s the real GOAT?

Too many people judge the Greatest Olympian of All Time by medal haul, but there’s much more to it than that.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

The death of Neil Armstrong has no obvious sporting connection. But the astronaut’s ‘giant leap for mankind’ got me thinking about redrawing the boundaries of human achievement. And that, in turn, brought me to the GOAT question. You don’t follow? This isn’t some David Bowie-style free-association lyric a la ‘Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow’. The GOAT in question is the Greatest Olympian of All Time.

Now that the Olympics are over, giving way to the Paralympics, we can try to make sense of what we have witnessed. While we in Britain debate the Most Pointless Sporting Question Ever, namely ‘Who will win BBC Sports Personality of the Year?’, we shouldn’t overlook the GOAT question. As in Beijing, there were two Olympian superstars vying for this accolade at London 2012 – Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Even before the track and field competitions had started, some commentators were crowning Phelps the greatest. Why? Because when the US won gold in the 4 x 200 metres freestyle relay, Phelps finally overtook Soviet gymnast Laryssa Latynina’s record of 18 Olympic medals.

Phelps’ career haul of medals now stands at 22, of which 18 are gold. Few Olympians come close to matching that record. Indeed, it’s a record which may never be surpassed. But, while Phelps is undoubtedly the most decorated Olympian, that doesn’t make him the greatest. Ironically, Phelps clambered to the top of the medal table precisely at the point at which cracks were appearing in his aura of invincibility. He continued to rack up medals but he was no longer the Übermensch of the swimming tournament.

I would question whether medal count is the right measure of GOATness. Events like swimming or gymnastics uniquely lend themselves to multi-medal hauls. The sheer number of distances and types of stroke have led to medal inflation. By contrast, a sprinter or long-distance runner can only realistically compete in two or three events. Does that mean that Jesse Owens, Michael Johnson or Usain Bolt cannot be considered greater than Michael Phelps? Of course not. If you’re not convinced, I would challenge you – without resorting to Wikipedia – to name the top 10 Olympic medal winners. I’ll bet that you won’t recognise half the names. In part, that’s probably because most of us aren’t Olympic trainspotters with an encyclopedic knowledge of medal winners. But it’s also because winning stacks of medals doesn’t automatically confer Olympian immortality.

In order to answer the GOAT question we need to agree on some criteria. Easier said than done, of course. The very meaning of being an Olympian is highly contested. Is it about ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ (Swifter, Higher, Stronger)? Or is the true Olympic spirit not about the winning but the taking part? The founder of the modern Games, Baron de Coubertin, expressed both points of view. If ‘trying your best’ embodies the elusive Olympian ethos, then losers must be in the frame. As one commentator put it, in a Telegraph blog, ‘Eric the Eel and Hamadou Djibo Issaka (the rower from Niger) are the greatest Olympians ever, for proving that coming last is no disgrace’. I’d suggest that treating de Coubertin’s quotes as scripture doesn’t really help us answer the exam question.

Some argue that longevity is the real measure of greatness. Arguably, the ability to win gold at successive Olympiads is another measure of greatness. Phelps performs well here, winning medals at three successive games. However, British rower Steve Redgrave won gold medals at five successive Olympiads, and sailor Ben Ainslie won various medals at five successive Games: four golds, one silver. Does Redgrave trump Phelps on longevity even though he has won fewer golds?

I don’t think quantitative metrics alone – medals or longevity – provide us with the answer. This is because – whisper it – some medals are more equal than others. Of course, all medals are equal for the purposes of the medal table. But, in reality, some medals are more highly valued. Does anyone seriously think that a gold medal in BMX bike racing or beach volleyball or dressage is worth the same as Mo Farah’s 5k and 10k double or Usain Bolt’s two sprint titles? Of course they don’t. Silly sports are one of the endearing features of the Games. But we know there’s a pecking order in Olympic events. Track-and-field competitions are regarded as ‘blue riband’. The men’s 100 metres final was the most coveted ticket at the Games. What does that tell you? What the sprint finals – and the 100 metres in particular – are worth.

Another reason that medals in sports like rowing, sailing or equestrianism cannot compare with track and field is that they are simply not global sports. Affluent nations tend to dominate these events. With sprinting or distance running, the global playing field is much more level and the competition considerably more fierce.

The one measure that doesn’t register in the medal tables is the Neil Armstrong factor. The jawdropping ability to redefine the limits of human possibility. This intangible and unquantifiable criterion is, I would argue, the most important. To me, the greatest Olympians are the paradigm shifters – the men and women who performed extraordinary sporting feats. Jesse Owens deunked Nazi racial myths in the 1936 Berlin Games. Fanny Blankers-Koen, the ‘Flying Housewife’, showed that age and motherhood were no obstacle to Olympic glory in the 1948 London Games. Bob Beamon – the ‘man who saw lightning’ – took one giant leap in 1968, setting a long-jump world record that stood for 22 years. Michael Johnson won the 200 and 400 metres double at successive Games in 1996 and 2000.

And then, of course, there’s Usain Bolt – the ‘fastest man in the world’. In my lifetime I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite so extraordinary as his 100 and 200 metres double in Beijing – breaking both world records in the process. When he retained both sprint titles under fierce pressure from his rivals in London, he showed he wasn’t just a one-hit wonder but a genuine Olympic legend. Bolt is at once both human and superhuman. Is he greater than Jesse Owens or Michael Johnson? Ask me after Rio in 2016 and I might be able to tell you.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today