Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Greatest Ever?

Clearly, the darling story of the Beijing Olympics has been Michael Phelps’ quest for the most number of gold medals in a single Olympic Games. Mark Spitz won seven over 30 years ago in Munich, the last time the Philippines played a basketball game in the greatest sporting event in the world. Surely there are other inspiring stories but none has captured the imagination of the world as Phelps’ eight gold-medal haul.

It would probably take at least a century or two for our beloved country to match the number of gold medals that this phenom from Baltimore has won, if we match it at all. As we struggle to find our first (this was written before our taekwondo jins compete), a single swimmer already has 14 within a four-year span. In fact, I think only less than 10 countries will have more gold medals than Michael Phelps alone by the time these Games close.

Is he the greatest Olympic athlete of all time? Well, if you measure by medals, more specifically the gold variety, then there is no doubt. Mark Spitz, the man whose record of seven gold medals in one Olympics was surpassed by Phelps, is the first to declare that Michael is indeed the best Olympian in history. He has won more than any human being on the face of the planet. But are the number of gold medals the only way to gauge greatness? Let’s look at other criteria.

What about the athletes who have been able to dominate over an extended period of time? How much does longevity count? Greg Louganis, dominated diving, Theofilo Stevenson for boxing and Carl Lewis in track and field for multiple Olympics. Beijing is already Phelps’ second Olympics and he’s young enough for at least one or even two more. He won six golds in Athens before his record haul in China. So this is not a flash in the pan. Phelps fits.

What about those who transcended their sport and etched their character and personality into the consciousness and the minds of the human race by their performance? Cassius Clay with his style and grace captured the hearts of all sports fans with his demeanor and flamboyance. The young Muhamad Ali touched all fans beyond boxing and beyond sports. The single most recognizable personality of the Beijing Games is the American swimmer who has inspired a new generation with his simplicity of success. He has transcended swimming and sports in general to become the hero of all. Phelps fits.

What about the ones who paved the way to perfection? Before 1976, no gymnast had ever been perfect in any of their performances. Nadia Comaneci changed all that and revolutionized expectations for her sport. Before 2008, no swimmer, let alone athlete, had won eight gold medals out of the 8 events he participated in, all in world record time. That’s as perfect as it gets. Phelps fits again.

What about the athletes who dominated but was part of a team as most sports require? Michael Jordan was part of two Olympic basketball teams for the USA who steam rolled through the competition on the way to the gold medal. Some can argue that if basketball had individual events like the slam dunk and three point shooting contest, then more medals would be won by basketball players. Same goes for other team sports. But three eight of the eight eight golds won by Phelps did require teammates as he was only one of four swimmers who competed for that particular gold. So to a certain extent, Phelps still fits.

So any way you look at it, Michael Phelps does fit as the greatest Olympic athlete of all time. He shattered world records in world record fashion. He’s won the most gold medals ever. And he’s not done yet.

The only question remaining open for debate is if Michael Phelps is not just the greatest Olympian, but the greatest athlete in the history of mankind. It’s a question I reckon will not be answered easily or convincingly one way or the other. Michael Jordan and Muhamad Ali had much better careers outside the Olympics. You would also have to include athletes who have to be considered like Pele, Tiger Woods, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky and others.

For now, let us just cherish and witness the greatest Olympic performance in the history of the games and be grateful that it happened in our lifetime.