Giant on the move
Who is the greatest Olympian? Clue: it’s not Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps is a phenomenal swimmer, possibly the best in history, and if he achieves his target of eight gold medals in Beijing, for an overall tally of 14 (10 of them individual) there is no doubt that he deserves his place in the pantheon.
But the greatest-ever Olympian? That is a big call.
There is no denying that it is tough to win an Olympic swimming gold but, once you reach that standard, there are plenty to harvest. Many of the top swimmers seem capable of racing over 100 metres, 200, 400, often in a variety of strokes, plus the medley, and also seemingly have relays for just about every distance.
In athletics it is extremely rare for a 100 metres runner to go as high as 400 and even if they could, the qualification rounds would be too draining to have any hope of adding the 200 as well.
To get on a par with swimming the Games would have to introduce the track races over 50, 150, and 250 metres (plus relays of course). They would have to get creative to match the medley, perhaps 50 metres of sprinting, 50 of hurdling and 50 of running backwards — and get three friends together and there’s another medal to shoot for.
Carl Lewis, who won nine golds, including four in a row for long jump, has a much greater claim and he would certainly give himself the vote.
In the early days of the Games the field event programme resembled modern swimming — so much so that Ray Ewry mined eight golds over three Olympics, all from his basic talent of jumping.
Somebody must have decided they were cheap medals as standing long, high and triple jump had all disappeared by the 1920s.
Larysa Latynina won has nine golds but in a sport where the medals are even cheaper than swimming — gymnastics — her challenge falls, as does that of Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich, who won six gold medals between 1932 and 1960 … because he is a fencer.
German canoeist Birgit Fischer won eight golds over six different Olympics, managing to represent East and united Germany in the process. She won her first at 18 and last at 42 but Finn Paavo Nurmi has the biggest overall haul of athletics medals with 12 and certainly has a claim to be the greatest runner, though his haul also included relay golds, and at cross-country at that.
Emil Zatopek, who in 1952 won 5,000 metres, 10,000 and marathon — in his first attempt at the distance — and also won the 10,000 four years earlier, is also a contender.
Al Oerter matches Lewis by winning the same event in four successive Olympics but though discus conjures up great traditional ancient Olympic images, hurling it a long way for a lot of years is not quite enough.
The decathlon might not have the glamour of the 100 metres or the tradition of the 1,500 metres but it is the ultimate test of all-round strength, speed and agility — ergo, it produces the best sportsman.
Mathias, who won the 1948 decathlon as a teenager and retained the title with the biggest winning margin seen at that point set a high bar. Thompson triumphed in 1980 and 84 and though they were boycott years, he made sure he beat any absentees elsewhere to ensure his status was not undermined.
Throw in the fact that he also competed in 1976 as an 18-year-old then dragged his battered body through the whole thing again to finish fourth in 1988, then you have the one very good athlete.
But not the greatest Olympian.
For me, and no apologies for choosing a fellow Briton, the ultimate honour goes to rower Steve Redgrave, who, in an event notorious for its physical demands and where the major sporting nations all have an interest, managed to win a remarkable five straight golds.
Overcoming illness and financial hardship to keep going in what really was an amateur sport Redgrave, with an iron will and absolute refusal to lose, drove his various team mates to remarkable feats of endurance, culminating in his fifth gold in Sydney at the age of 38.
His graciousness in victory exemplified the Olympics, even if he declined to sign up to the concept of it being the taking-part that matters.
Couldn’t agree more? Couldn’t agree less? Let us know in the comments…
PHOTO: Michael Phelps of the U.S. shows his gold medal after winning the men”s 200m freestyle swimming final at the National Aquatics Centre during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 12, 2008. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen