The Greatest Olympian?

Some people collect stamps. Michael Phelps collects gold medals.

I wanted to draw attention to this label of ‘greatest ever Olympian’ that seems to have been handed to Mr Phelps in the wake of his phenomenal medal haul at this year’s Olympic games – and there is no more appropriate day to do this than on this one, as the curtain closes on London’s main event and the Paralympics prepare to take centre-stage.

One who thinks too much about this sort of thing is sure to feel frustrated at the ease, and the ignorance, with which the media has freely handed this award to Phelps. Without doubt, he deserves some kind of major headline in the history books. Perhaps even calling him the greatest swimmer of all time is somewhat justified. But the greatest across all sports? After a week in which we saw Mo Farah win a second gold medal (running 5000 metres) just a few days after his first (awarded for running 10,000 metres), with an extra 5000 metre heat in mid-week (totaling 20,000 metres in seven days), not to mention maintaining a 100% record in every event he entered, I find this an argument worth having.

Does the quantity of gold medals in Phelps’ locker outweigh the achievement on the athletics track of Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis, bearing in mind that swimming offered a greater spectrum of events, most of which Phelps entered? Let us also not forget that everyone’s new favourite swimmer also won two silvers, plus a rather forgettable fourth-placed finish in his first final this summer – meaning his 100% Olympic record from 2008 is far from intact. The law of averages springs to mind here.

For sure, though, Phelps has shown amazing longevity as an athlete, London 2012 being his fourth Olympic tournament. Perhaps this is the best argument to make in favour of his new title. For all the achievements of Farah, Ennis and Bolt, none of them can boast the sort of career-long consistency that Phelps has shown. Yet, the media is drawn not to this, but to the sheer number of swimming events he has taken part in. I merely present an alternative point of view, rather than a straight-out disagreement with those who make the claim. Mo Farah, for me, is more than Phelps’ equal this summer. What separates them is the fact that Phelps has repeated his achievement twice before, in 2004 and 2008.

Thankfully, talk has moved on from the inflating of one’s ego to the inflating of the legacy that the 2012 Olympics will leave in Great Britain. Whether comments saying we’ve provided the best Olympics ever are genuine or simply a way of making us feel good in the midst of imminent financial meltdown remain to be seen, but what can’t be argued against is the effect that the once-in-a-lifetime event has had on our country. I logged on to a certain social networking site after Andy Murray’s gold medal victory over Roger Federer last week to see the first 14 posts on my news feed all mentioning one name in positive agreement and unison; another once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

Writing this now in anticipation of an exciting closing ceremony that will serve as an intermediary between the Olympics and Paralympics, something tells me the latter tournament will give us a new perspective when deciding which athletes deserve the greatest amount of respect. You see, I’m not saying that anyone deserves more or less respect based on impairments, but the lesson here is context. Whether or not you see Phelps as the greatest ever Olympian, or whether you feel proud to have this event in Great Britain, or whether you even care about the Olympics at all, is based on your understanding of context – economic, emotional, industrial…

I’m complicating things, aren’t I? Ah, I just wanted to give you something to think about when you’re holding back the tears in tonight’s ceremony. Enjoy!


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