Friday, October 10, 2008

Michael Phelps: Really the greatest?

(Note that this was first published on September 19. It was originally hosted at Wordpress, but I've decided to switch everything over here.)

For my first ever blog, I thought I would stick to a topic that I actually know something about (or at least think I know), so that extensive research, internet or otherwise, would not be required. It may take me some time to get the hang of this, so bear with me, if you will.

This past Saturday night, as many of you may know, was the season premiere of the long-lived NBC sketch-comedy show Saturday Night Live. I was particularly excited– not only is SNL one of my favorite shows on TV, but the choice of host was quite intriguing: Michael Phelps. The man, I daresay, needs no further introduction.

I’ve always been interested when an athlete hosts the show, and in the past I had not been disappointed (if you’ve ever seen Peyton Manning in the mock-United Way commercial, surely you’ll know what I mean), and, as a swimmer myself, I simply could not wait to see Phelps and his musical guest counterpart, Lil Wayne–or Weezy, as he is so affectionately referred to as–take the national stage.

While the show was subpar at best (Space Olympics, anyone?), I believe the lesson learned was this: acting is certainly not Michael Phelps’ forte. “Oh well,” I said to myself, “even the greatest Olympian of all time has his weaknesses.”

I paused, deeply considering what I had just said. Phelps… the greatest?
Is this really the case?

I’ve heard this argument often in the weeks since the Beijing Olympics ended. News publications from all over were abuzz over Phelps’ record eight gold medals and seven world records, and as a result so was practically anyone and everyone I spoke to, be it at work, in town, or elsewhere. In fact, only recently has the buzz really died down.

I’m not saying that Phelps’ achievements do not impress me; they most certainly do! I would not hesistate, in fact, to deem him Beijing’s top Olympian, each and every sport and nation considered. It is simply when a number of my peers consider him THE greatest that I begin to question their judgment.

Sure, Phelps won a lot of medals. But he was also entered in a lot of races, and, well, in swimming there is a lot to choose from. In addition, I can say from experience that it does not require too much practice to be able to swim all four of the strokes well– save for butterfly, perhaps. This is not to say that one cannot merely leap into a pool and start swimming all these strokes right off the bat, but for most it takes approximately a week before the stroke is, well, legal.

Therefore, Phelps has easy access to all four strokes, and thus could conceivably swim literally all of the swimming events that the Olympics have to offer. And from there it is not too hard to pick and choose eight of his best events out of a rather large pool (heh… pool…). Consequently, I would consider swimming to be easier to win a medal in.

Compare this to track and field, if you will. At the most, runners can run about 4-6races in the Olympics. Think about this: a 100 meter runner will not be running the 2 mile as well. Nor the 1 mile, the 800, or possibly even the 400, although the latter is slightly more believable. He/she may run the 200, and once again the 400, but nothing above that in the majority of cases. Even if a runner was to run every sprinter’s race possible, he/she would only have five events (the 100, 200, 400, 4X100 relay and 4X400 relay. Then, of course, there’s the hurdles, but rarely do the 100m-caliber sprinters run them.). Add in perhaps the long jump and he/she has six. Obviously this is far less than Phelps has in his arsenal. There’s simply more variety.

So who do I think is the greatest Olympian of all time? Well, with all this talk of track and field it might be obvious that it’s Carl Lewis. Lewis won a grand total of nine Olympic gold medals over FOUR, count them, FOUR Olympic games. And he did this in four different events, whereas Phelps, as it stands now, has won medals in eight different events. So yes, Michael Phelps has more gold medals than Carl Lewis, but Michael Phelps also had (as do all swimmers) a larger array of events from which to choose from.

Where do I consider Phelps in the ranking of the greatest Olympians? Certainly first of all swimmers, and undoubtedly inside the top ten, perhaps top five, with all sports considered. And could he move up my ranks? Definitely.
But in order for that to happen, he needs to come to the 2012 London Olympics and continue to dominate. Heck, come to the 2016 Olympics (keep your fingers crossed for Chicago!!) and continue to win. He’s been dominant for two Olympic games now (plus a 2000 Sydney fifth place). Carl Lewis won gold medals in four Olympic games, and won in 1996 at the age of 35.

Will Phelps still be competitive then? If he is, maybe he will garner my vote. I guess I won’t know for another four years, though.

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