Being the greatest athlete ever

NBC has had just a touch of coverage of Michael Phelps and his 8 gold medals, which in breaking Mark Spitz’s 7 from 1972 has him declared the greatest Olympic athlete, or even athlete of all time. And there’s no doubt he’s one of the greatest swimmers of all time and this is an incredible accomplishment. Couch potato that I am, I can hardly criticise him.

(We are of course watching the Olympics in HDTV using MythTV, but fast-forwarding over the major bulk of it. Endless beach volleyball, commercials and boring events whiz by. I can’t imagine watching without such a box. I would probably spend more time, which they would like, but be less satisfied and see fewer of the events I wish to.)

Phelps got 8 Gold but 3 of them were relays. He certainly contributed to those relays, may well have made the difference for the U.S. team and allowed it to win a gold it would not have won without him. So it seems fair to add them, no?

No. The problem is you can’t win relay gold unless you are lucky enough to be a citizen of one of a few powerhouse swimming nations, in particular the USA and Australia, along with a few others. Almost no matter how brilliant you are, if you don’t compete for one of these countries, you have no chance at those medals. So only a subset of the world’s population even gets to compete for the chance to win 7 or 8 medals at the games. This applies to almost all team medals, be they relay or otherwise. Perhaps the truly determined can emigrate to a contending country. A pretty tall order.

Phelps one 5 individual golds, and that is also the record, though it is shared by 3 others. He has more golds than anybody, though other athletes have more total medals.

Of course, swimming is one of the special sports in which there are enough similar events that it is possible to attain a total like this. There are many sports that don’t even have 7 events a single person could compete in. (They may have more events but they will be divided by sex, or weight class.)

Shooting has potential for a star. It used to even be mixed (men and women) until they split it. It has 9 male events, and one could in theory be master of them all.

Track and Field has 47 events split over men and women. However, it is so specialized in how muscles are trained that nobody expects sprinters to compete in long events or vice versa. Often the best sprinter does well in Long Jump or Triple Jump, allowing the potential of a giant medal run for somebody able to go from 100m to 400m in range. In theory there are 8 individual events 400m or shorter.

And there are a few other places. But the point is that to do what Phelps (or Spitz) did, you have to be in a small subset of sports, and be from a small set of countries. There have been truly “cross sport” athletes at the Olympics but in today’s world of specialized training, it’s rare. If anybody managed to win multiple golds over different sports and beat this record, then the title of greatest Olympian would be very deserving. One place I could see some crossover is between high-diving and Trampoline. While a new event, Trampoline seems to be like doing 20 vaults or high dives in a row. And not that it wasn’t exciting to watch him race.

More Burning Man packing…

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