About Me

My photo
I'm a life-long New Englander, father of 4 challenging kids (I know: I'm supposed to say "wonderful", but while that'd be true, technically speaking, it'd also be misleading), and fortunate husband to my favorite wife of more than 20 years. I've got over 20 years experience breaking things as a test engineer, quality engineer, reliability engineer, and most recently (and most enjoyably) a Product Safety / EMC Compliance Engineer. In the photo, I'm on the left.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Greatest Olympic Athlete of All Time...?

So I've been watching a lot of Olympics lately. I'm pretty sure many of us have. Here in the states you can't get away from the swimming and gymnastics events...it's just about all that any media is talking about (and as of yesterday the women's soccer team too).

They keep calling Michael Phelps the Greatest Olympic Athlete of all time.

This is trash, I think.

Not to belittle the things that Michael has accomplished. He's definitely an outstanding swimmer, but does that make him the greatest athlete of all time?

For those of you who watch and follow American Football, this conversation puts me in mind of so many (many, many) conversations about Drew Bledsoe - the long-time quarterback for my own beloved New England Patriots. His supporters will tell you that he's one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He set all kinds of records for passing yards, passing attempts, and such.

Well, he set records for passing attempts because his coach repeatedly told him to try to pass the ball. He set records for passing yards because he was a great thrower and had excellent accuracy. AND the coach told him to throw the ball. That happens when you have no running game.

I can't in good faith claim that Drew was a great quarterback. He was an excellent thrower though (and a true sportsman as well). I don't think he read defenses 'with the best of them' and his ability to scramble was limited to making eggs.

In the same way, I can't get behind the claim that Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete of all time. He's clearly an excellent swimmer. Looks to me like the undisputed best in the world, judging by all the records and medals he now owns. Is he the best ever? I don't know (I don't seem to know much, do I?)

As for the "Greatest Athlete" part, I'd have to submit that the primary reason that he's got so many damn medals is because he has the opportunity to participate in so many damn events. Contrast that to the soccer teams, who have the opportunity to win only one medal every four years. In fact, I'll go out on a ledge to say that *most* athletes have the opportunity to win comparatively few medals compared to swimmers (and gymnasts or track & field athletes).

So Michael got four gold medals and two silver medals this year. It's certainly impressive, but does that make him a greater or better athlete than anyone on the women's soccer team? How about the women's beach volleyball team? Or anyone from any of the teams where they only have the opportunity to win ONE medal every four years?

As for the "...of All Time" part, is that fair? Mark Spitz was an Olympic swimmer, but he only participated in two sets of Olympic games (1968 & 1972). Between these two sets of games Mark won 9 gold, a silver, and a bronze. Strict math tells us that Michael has done better than that, but back in the late '60s and early '70s things were different.

Swimmers had hair, for one thing. They also wore ridiculous suits. Ok...they *still* wear ridiculous suits, but today's ridiculous suits are designed to improve swim times. So are the caps that they wear, but that they didn't wear back in Spitz's time.

In addition to longer careers, today's athletes have many advantages over yesterday's:
Diet (including the chemical additives that are in so many of today's common foodstuffs), technique, equipment (which is better designed from different (more advantageous) materials to be more effective / less drag...), electronic measurement systems, etc.

I have to wonder what might happen if we stuck Michael in a pool with ALL of the swimmers who ever came before, all of them at their peak, put them in just pain old swimming trunks like you see in backyards across America, and told them to race. Make sure that they've all got hair too.

Who would win? Again: I don't know, but I think that there's a lot to say for doing things the ancient ways: naked.

Just you and the other participants, built the way you were born.

Is Michael the greatest Olympic athlete of All Time? Just because he has more medals than any other athlete?

Not to my thinking. I don't even think that he deserves the title of Greatest Olympic Athlete of 2012. I think that title should go to Ashton Eaton, who won the gold in the Decathlon.

To be clear: Until I wrote this, I had never heard of Ashton Eaton. I just did a websearch for "Decathlon" and his name showed up as the one who took gold for the men this year.

You get a gold (bear in mind: a single Gold Medal) from a two-day, ten-event trial, and then I think you have greater claim to the title "Greatest Athlete" for that year. They probably aren't even the best in the world for each of those individual events (I'll bet).

Michael Phelps did one thing repeatedly better than anyone else: he swam (affording myself some latitude for the different strokes that are in swimming).

Ashton Eaton did ten different events from Javelin Throwing to Running to Pole Vaulting...) in aggregate better than anyone else did those same ten events.

Of all time? I like to be careful when I use phrases like this, being as left-brained and logic-bound as I am. We don't have any visibility whatever to the Olympic games or athletes who actually started this competition. We have records as far back as 776 BCE, but they were going on before that. Of course in those early games, according to about.com, there was only one event, and it was a foot race.

What did those folks look like? Remembering also that back then, they didn't spend 24/7 training for the Olympics. When the time came, they dropped what they were doing and headed off for Greece. In fact, the winner of the game in 776 BCE was a cook named Coroebus (it's on the internet, so it must be true, right?).

Coroebus no doubt took his laurel wreath, and when he caught his breath went back to his kitchen to make something to eat. Laurel wreath broth, no doubt.

The ancient games ran (no pun intended) up until 393 CE...over a thousand years of (recorded) Olympic games. Who's the "Greatest of all Time"?



  1. I have been studiously ignoring the Olympic (games?) ..... but it seems to me that the athlete of the year, or of all time for that matter, should be well rounded, not just one (game?) specific.

    1. Yar! That's my rather long-winded point! Decathlon (Decathlete??) is a good example, though it does not include a swimming aspect.

      Triathlete would be a good candidate too, though that does not include anything other than a Swim, a Ride, and a Run. LOTS of stamina though!

  2. I agree with your point about the greatest athlete being determined by multiple events. It's difficult enough to come to consensus on, say, the greatest athlete in today's NFL, let alone of all-time. How could you possibly compare Bob Waterfield, Sonny Jurgensen, and (from your beloved team) Tom Brady? Different eras, same sport, but completely different athletes. Add into the mix Jim Thorpe, Pele, Philippides... you get the idea.

    1. Aye. Comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.

  3. I can't read this as I've been doing my damnedest to avoid the Olympics and succeeded very well so far. ;)

    1. Nuts! I have a few other Olympic-centric thoughts broiling in my mind...I may just have to abandon them!

    2. Yeah, dump em. Olympics suck. :)

    3. *sigh*

      Thoughts are rare enough for me...now I have to dump them.