OUT OF LEFT FIELD
Who's the Greatest Olympian?
Or what abo;ut
An Olympic Grab Bag:
Phelps, Raisman, Grenada
By STAN ISAACS
Jim Thorpe, Paavo Nurmi, Jesse Owens, Emil Zatopek, the ice dancers Torville and Dean, Nadia Comaneci and Carl Lewis, among others. The names of great Olympic athletes reverberate anew in the wake of Michael Phelps attaining a record collection of 22 medals at the London Olympics.
He is being hailed as the greatest Olympian all time. Is he?
Phelps won 18 gold medals, two silver, two bronze. He won in various strokes at distances of 100 meters to 400 meters. Impressive, but is it as impressive as winning a decathlon, which consists of 10 track events requiring skills in running, jumping and throwing?
I agree with track expert Phil Hersh of The Los Angeles Times who says that he puts an asterisk on swimming and gymnastic medals because there are so many available, and the nature of the sport is such that winning multiples is common.
Suppose medals were handed out for the individual events in the decathlon. Bob Mathias, who won the decathlon twice (1948, 1952) could have received medals in some of the individual events, like the 100-meter dash, discus, shot put and pole vaul, among others, in addition to the overall gold medal for finishing first.
He wouldnt have come close to Phelps 22 medals, but he would have displayed athletic prowess in many more disciplines than Phelps.
Britisher Sebastian Coe, a two-time Olympic track gold winner, argues that swimming, unlike other sports, offers a smorgasbord of individual events and allows its athletes the chance to team up on relays, too. Great Britain stakes a claim for Steven Redgrave, who won the same event, coxless pairs in rowing, for five straight Olympics. I would cite, but not argue for Al Oerter, who won the discus four times in a row. In boxing, Hungary's Laszlo Papp won gold as a middleweight in 1948 and as a light middleweight in 1952 and 1956. Cuban heavyweight boxers Teofilo Stevenson (1972, 1976, 1980) and Felix Savon (1992, 1996, 2000) also won three consecutive gold medals in the same weight class.
Some people make a case for runner Carl Lewis. He competed in four Olympics--1984, 1988, 1992 and 1996. He won nine gold medals, one silver. He won the broad jump all four years, the 100-meter twice, the 200 meter once and he participated in two winning relays.
Not to take anything away from Phelps, but the record he broke was held by the Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina. She won nine golds among 18 medals. As far as we know nobody ever claimed she was the greatest Olympian of all time.
Stars make the Olympics. Stars make the telecasts. NBC rode Phelps to a faretheewell. Consider one days coverage of Phelps that was monitored by NBCmetrics. For Thursday, Aug. 2, when swimming and gymnastics dominated television, Phelps was mentioned 88 times. Next was teammate Ryan Lochte 72 times and gymnast Gabby Douglas, 67. Viktoria Komova, a Russian gymnast, was the highest non-American, sixth with 31 mentions.
Does the feat of amassing medals over a few years compare with an outstanding performance in one year? Will Phelps 22 have the impact over the years of Jesse Owens four medals in 1936 in the face of the Nazi boasts of Aryan supremacy? Would Owens have matched Usain Bolts doubles in the 100 and 200-meter races if World War II had not cancelled the 1940 Olympics?
And then there was Emil Zatopek. the Czech Locomotive. Zatopek warmed up with a gold medal in the 10,000 meter race in 1948. He then dominated the 1952 Olympics. He won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Then, after deciding at the last minute, he entered the marathon. He pounded the 26 miles and 385 yards through the streets of Helsinki to complete the long-distance triple. He set Olympic records in all three of the most grueling races on the track and field program. He was 29.
(In the 5,000 he beat Britisher Chris Chataway who would help to push Roger Bannister to the first sub-four-minute mile two years later).
Zatopeks running style was distinctive, at odds with what was considered to be efficient at the time. His head would roll, face contorted. He often wheezed and panted audibly while running. This earned him another nickname, Emile the Terrible.
He would train in any weather and would often do so wearing heavy work boots. He spoke six languages. He was injured and had a hernia operation six weeks before the 1956 Games. After finishing sixth in the marathon, he retired.
Zatopek was an influential figure in the Communist Party. When he supported the Partys democratic wing, he was stripped of his rank and expelled from the army and the Party. He was forced to work in inferior and dangerous positions, such as garbage collection service and well digging. He was rehabilitated in 1990 by Vaclav Havel.
Comparing Zatopek (four medals) with Phelps (22) may be a case of apples and oranges. But if Phelps did nothing else, the argument about who is the greatest Olympian of all time wakes up the echoes of Zatopeks 1952 days of glory.
* * *
Dipping in and out of the exhaustive TV coverage, I was most moved by these three developments:
. In the mens 10,000 meters, the stadium rocked from start to finish with cheers for Great Britains own, Mo Farah. The race was so long, NBC inserted commercial breaks twice during the race. Tension built as he ran among the leaders all the way, occasionally moving up to second between commercials, then dropping back a few paces. He then broke the race open on the last lap. Not only did he win, but his training partner, American Galen Rupp, made a late rush and finished second. The cameras were quick to zero in on Roberto Salazar, the one time marathon great, celebrating the one-two finishes of the two worthies he coached.
. Soccer is frequently boring to Americans because there is so little scoring. The womens semi-final had scoring aplenty (for soccer) and turned out to be one of the highlight events of the Olympics. The Canadians took a 1-0 lead, the Americans tied. The Canadians went ahead, 2-1, the Americans tied. The Canadians took a 3-2 lead, the Americans tied, helped by a referees gaffe. And then the Americans scored a winning goal in the last minute of the second overtime. Whew.
. Aly Raisman, Jewish, American, won more than a gold medal in the gymnastic floor exercise. In the face of the dismay over the International Olympic Committees refusal to honor the memory of the slain Israeli athletes in Munich, she performed to the music of the Israeli song, hava nagila. She said winning the gold on the 40th anniversary of the massacre made her accomplishment special.
* * *
Grenada may have won these 2012 Olympics. Just consider the all-important, yet overlooked Medals Per Capita standings. Divide Kirani James medal in the mens 400-meter race by Grenadas population and Grenada had a rate of one medal per 110,821 population. The United States was 49th--one medal per 3,482,000 people. India was last.
©2012 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The photo of Michael Phelps is courtesy of CSM.com This column first posted Aug. 13, 2012.
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