Thursday, August 2, 2012

Scoreboard, Dude! ... But Not Really.

Among the many elements that make following sports such a joy is the potential of seemingly winnable barroom arguments.  Sure, there are plenty of other milieus rife with debatable questions; "who's the greatest band/actress/writer/painter/U.S. President ever?"  "Is The Godfather or Goodfellas a better movie?"  And so forth.  You can argue about anything as long as you have a contradictory position to argue against.  The thing that sets sports apart is the illusion that an argument can actually be definitively resolved.  (Hence my carefully applied "seemingly winnable" above.)  We think we can "win" sports arguments for the simple reason that success in sports is quantifiable in a manner that it simply is not elsewhere.  An obvious and admittedly dumb example: Tom Clancy has outsold, by vast orders of magnitude, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and probably (though there's no real way to verify this) Shakespeare.  This is great for his bank account, but it certainly does not make him a better writer than those people.  More importantly, nobody would ever argue that it did.  You don't judge artistic achievement on gross earnings or units sold.  Because of the vastness of scope and complexity of process involved in creation, artistic talent cannot be graphed, calculated, or linear regression'd.  Athletic talent, though?  We have numbers out the yang for that stuff.   The problem and great trap of arguing sports is when we give those numbers undue weight.  Numbers can be spun.  Numbers can be ripped from their initial context and retrofitted to an entirely different one.  Numbers can talk at cross purposes from each other.   Numbers never, ever tell the whole story.  Which is to say: No.  No, Bob Costas, Ryan Seacrest, Meredith Vieira, Hoda whateverthehellyourlastnameis, and other assorted NBC broadcast "personalities."  Michael Phelps is not the greatest Olympian of all time. 

Mind you, I am absolutely not trying to belittle Phelps' accomplishments.  After last night, the man owns more medals than anyone else in Olympic history, and also to the most gold medals (15) and individual medals (9) of all time.  The acme he reached in Beijing was nothing short of incredible.  Certainly, he is in the GOOAT discussion ... but I don't believe for a second he deserves that moniker. 

First, it's not a given that he's even the greatest Olympic swimmer ever.  Everyone knows that Phelps broke Mark Spitz's record for gold medals in a single Olympics when he won eight in Beijing.  Well and good, but Spitz racked up seven golds in Munich in 1972 while simultaneously shattering the world record for every single one of those events in the process.  Read that sentence again.  I would argue that Spitz's defining Olympic Games were actually the more impressive feat.  Of course, here's where people shout that Phelps has more than doubled the medal count of his predecessor.  It's a point that must be taken into consideration, but apply it to other sports for a moment.  Can you tell me definitively that Joe Montana was a better quarterback than John Elway because he won more rings?  No, you can't.  Hell, Bill Russell has eleven NBA Championships and Michael Jordan has six, but go find me one person other than Tommy Heinsohn who honestly thinks Russell was actually better at basketball.  When you factor in all the medical, dietary, and training advances since Spitz's time that might have allowed him to extend his career and accrue more trips to the podium had he been privy to them, you simply cannot make an immutable statement of fact that Phelps is better than Spitz.

But let's assume that he is.  Greatest Olympic Swimmer of All Time status: hypothetically granted.  Now we enter the broader field of competition.  Jesse Owens.  Carl Lewis.  Jim Thorpe.  Jackie Joyner-Kersee.  Flo-Jo.  Mary Lou Retton.  Domonique Dawes.  You get the idea, and you'll note that I haven't even touched the Winter Olympics, as that would just muddy the waters beyond recovery.  The question is how one defines "greatest" when discussing an athletic gathering that spans every conceivable skill and facet of sport.  Can you, in any meaningful sense, compare swimming to track-and-field, gymnastics, or any other sport?  How?  Aside from medal tallies, there's no real systematic way, right?  If medals are all we have to go by, then Phelps is the de facto big dawg.  But here's the thing: you also must consider context, and here's where Phelps' case starts to tarnish.

Swimming offers the most opportunities of any sport to earn medals.  There are more events in which players can compete, and thus more chances to stand on the podium, so it's not entirely fair to use the "most medals" argument, since other spots don't afford the same number of shots to their athletes.  Also, because of the low-impact nature on muscles and joints relative to sprinting or a floor exercise, the athletes can perform at an elite level far longer than in other Olympic sports.  When you only get a chance to compete once every four years, the importance of career longevity becomes even more pronounced. 

(Gymnasts, as a rule, experience only one Olympics at their physical peak, maaaayyyybbeeee two if their bodies cooperate and the young guns coming up don't bump them out of one of the precious few spots on the team.  While track-and-field athletes can do well in certain events like the long jump over many years, their ability to viably compete in, say, the 100 m dissipates after two Summer Games tops, limiting their opportunities to win more medals in a way that swimmers don't have to deal with.)   
That's the logistical argument for at least attenuating the "OMG MEDALZZZZ" concept to account for the swimming's unique advantages.  Here, and this really is the crux for me, is where we discuss that favorite bell cow of Mel Kiper and Chad Ford: intangibles.  Aren't the Olympics supposed to be about more than just the end result?  I'm not talking about the pap and "great story lines" that NBC crams down our throats every four years, that stuff is just grating, but there is a higher ideal here, right?  Even in the cynicism-drenched modern era where sports are engineering vehicles for endorsement deals and future reality show careers, the Olympics still give us something compelling; not just because of what these athletes do but the circumstances in which they do it.  Call me a sap if you must, but the what they represent matters, if only because we still harbor a deep emotional attachment to that notion, even if it's long gone in reality.  That's where Michael Phelps falls short.  He doesn't feel Olympian, in the true and ancient sense of the word.  

Can you tell me that Phelps is a better Olympian than Jesse Owens was?  Owens walked into a Hitler-governed Berlin in 1936 as an African American competing in an Olympics that was specifically engineered by the host nation's media to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race.  He walked out with four gold medals after administering a clinical beat down to the competition, in the face of immense racism and psychological warfare not only from the German hosts but from many of his own countrymen and teammates. 

How does he stack up against Jackie Joyner-Kersee, whose Olympic career looks like this:

1984, Los Angeles: Silver Medal, Heptathalon.

1988, Seoul: Gold Medal, Heptathlon.  (Set the still-standing world record with 7,291 points.) 
Gold Medal, Long Jump.

1992, Barcelona: Gold Medal, Heptathlon.  Bronze Medal, Long Jump.

1996, Atlanta: Bronze Medal, Long Jump.  On a bum hamstring.  At the age of 34.

Note: the Heptathlon consists of the 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m sprint, long jump, javelin throw, and 800m race over two days.  Basically, speed, endurance, strength, hand-eye coordination, and general badassery and fortitude are required.

Note II: She won a medal in an event that involves jumping, on a busted hammy, at an age when most track athletes are retired.  I just though it bore repeating.  
In summary, here's Phelps immediately after winning that pivotal 19th medal: "All my life I wanted to do something no one has ever done before, and I did it.  I'm the first Michael Phelps."  Oh my god, what a charlatan.  He just third-person trumpeted his own awesomeness when said awesomeness was blatantly obvious to everyone on the planet and really, REALLY did not need a smug reiteration.  Yes, if anyone can say "Scoreboard, dude.  Unimpeachable bragging rights are mine," it's him, but seriously?  "The first Michale Phelps."  What a dope.  Which is kind of my point. 

Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, and he submitted one of the great displays of athletic dominance in history in 2008.  But is he the Greatest Olympian ever?  Nuh uh.  Not to me.  You have to have the medals to be considered great, but you also have to be the kind of person who would never utter that quote in public.  Medals can be melted down.  Records can be broken.  Greatness endures.  Make no mistake, Michael Phelps is really, really great.  He'll just never be the greatest. 


  1. I agree with you completely. So many athletes, like Soccer and Basketball players, play multiple games in Round Robin tournaments, over many days, to compete for one gold medal. Yet, they do just as much work, if not more, than swimmers. In Swimming, there are multiple races, all for medals. So, the number of medals is not a true measure of the greatest olympian. It would be like saying Kobe Bryant is a better athlete than Peyton Manning because he has scored more total points. The standards of measurement are different.

    Also, there are many athletes who have inspired so many in the Olympics who have not won any medals, like the Track and Field athlete with no legs. Just using the number of medals to measure the "greatest" takes away from the true spirit of the Olympics. He can call him the most decorated, or arguably, the best Olympic swimmer, but it's annoying how he keeps using "greatest Olympian" in a cheesy, overdramatic way. It minimizes the accomplishments and inspiring stories of so many other Olympians. Thanks for the post.

  2. Absolutely! I didn't even delve into tournament-based events, but you are 100% on-point with that! Thanks so much for reading!!!!