Summer Sportsblog: Who is the greatest Olympian?

As someone who has spent their entire summer digging a backside-shaped groove into his sofa watching the unhealthily large quantity of sport on offer this summer, I feel I have attained a new expertise in a range of sports that had not exactly populated the British mainstream a month ago.

Handball, anyone? You should, it’s a bonkers, fast-paced, skilful sport that is popular virtually everywhere in the world except in Britain.

Personal favourites include archery and judo, some of my favourite moments from London 2012 are the Italian men’s archery team winning gold with a bullseye  with their final arrow, and Briton Gemma Gibbons’ incredible run to the Judo final, beating the world champion in the semis.

However, the biggest news of all is that Michael Phelps is now, according to the all-time medal tables, the greatest Olympian of all time. He is the first man to win 20 Olympic medals, with 16 gold, almost double the number of his nearest competitor. The man is an awesome machine. I’d say a speedboat.

This record has therefore led to a possible answer to the question of who is the greatest Olympians. The swimming commentators certainly reckon so on the BBC, attaching the tag to ‘their man’ whenever he races, or even comes up in competition.

Others, however, are not so sure. Is it not the very point of the Olympics that the material glory is not everything, but taking part to the best of your abilities regardless of circumstance?

In that case, Michael Johnson’s assurance that Jesse Owens is, and always will be, the greatest Olympian for his four golds in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a black athlete giving two fingers to the so-called ‘Aryan Games’, has genuine weight.

In all honesty, we can’t pay much attention to medal tables outside the confines of single Olympics. Events change from games to games, the fitness and quality of athletes improve every four years, let alone forty years, that medals won in 1912 might be the same colour as those in 2012, but that’s where the similarity largely ends.

It is far more possible (not ‘easier’) to win  multiple medals in something like swimming or cycling, due to the plethora of similar events which allow for five or six medals to be won with a single set of skills.

In other events, great Olympians have competed with the possibility of only ever having a solitary medal to their name, and greatness comes from managing any more. If you could win fifteen medals for the decathlon, I’m pretty sure Daley Thompson would have managed it.

The generation shift between medal winners is most clearly proven by the previous all-time medal leader who was usurped by Phelps. Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won eighteen medals between 1956 and 1964, competed in many of the same events as today, but with the weight of the Communist medal factories behind her in training, which others could not compete with as they can today.

So who is the greatest Olympian? Certainly of this generation, the answer is Phelps; I am honoured to see him in his prime. But to simply dismiss the achievements of Owens, Latynina, Spitz, Thompson and Lewis on the basis of a lack of painted discs around their necks is to corrupt what the Olympics is all about.


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