Thursday, August 16, 2012

London 2012: Greatest Olympians

During the Olympics one of the most interesting discussions was over who is the greatest ever Olympian.  Here are my thoughts on the question.
According to these discussions, Olympic greatness should be measured mainly by success in Olympic games, i.e. by gold medals or medals in general.  The Olympics are about competition and the aim is to win.  Therefore we should look for athletes who have won many medals.  Swimmer Michael Phelps has won 18 golds and 22 medals in total, so surely he is the greatest, right?  Wrong.
7 of those golds and 9 of his total medals were from team events (i.e. relays), which surely don't count to the same extent as individual medals.  If you look at individual medals, gymnast Larisa Latynina comes top.  Interestingly, both swimming and gymnastics are sports that allow athletes to compete in multiple events at one Olympic games.  In fact, of the top 20 all-time Olympic medallists, 14 are swimmers or gymnasts.  A female gymnast can compete in beam, floor, vault, uneven bars, all-around, and team events.  A swimmer like Michael Phelps can do 100m free, 200m free, 100m fly, 200m fly, 200m IM, 4x100m medley relay, 4x100m free relay etc.  Compare this to, say, a hockey player, who can only enter one event per Olympics.  Or a decathlete, who does ten events but can only win one medal.  Looking at Phelps' events, many are very similar (e.g. 100m free, 200m free, 4x100m free, 4x200m free) - like Usain Bolt running 100m, 200m and 4x100m - whereas a decathlete's events are much more varied.
Then there's the issue that some sports, like equestrian, can be competed at for many more years than others, like diving.  Horseriders can go on well into their fifties.  Divers peak at age 22.  A horserider will be able to compete at many more Olympic games than a diver.
There's also the fact that some sports, like rowing, require more physical recovery time than others, like swimming.  Others are barely physical at all, like archery.
Then what about the argument that it should not only be medals that are used to decide the greatest Olympian, but medals won over several Olympic games?  Is it valid to argue that winning 5 golds at five different games is more impressive than winning 5 golds at a single games?
There are so many variables - how long you can compete at the top for, how many events are enterable, whether medals are won as an individual or in a team, and so on.  It is not possible to say who the greatest ever Olympian is, even if we only consider  medals, without thinking about personal circumstances or contribution to the Olympic movement as a whole or sport-changing performances.
So who is the greatest Olympian of all time?  No-one knows.  And if they think they do, they're wrong.  It's not really even that easy to have a personal opinion about, if you think about how many variables there are that could contribute to greatness, let alone form a cohesive argument to propose the 'greatest'.

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