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August 13, 2008 — Time and again, NBC announcers have called that Phelps “The Greatest Olympian ever,” or “of all time,” thereby doing a great disservice to all the many thousands of other Olympians.
It’s a matter of mathematics. Seventeen gold medals will be given away in men’s swimming alone this year, compared to one in basketball, tennis, baseball, and other team sports. Thirty four medals in all will be given away in swimming, a near comical number. The next closest is wrestling, which gives away 18. It’s the opposite approach in pentathalon, where one must compete in five disparate sports to win only one medal.
Consider that Roger Federer is competing in Olympic tennis in 2008 and is clearly one of the greatest athletes of all time … is it really so clear that Phelps is, “the greatest ever,” when athletes like Federer are competing a few miles away? I think the only things proven by Phelps’ medal count is that he is a great athlete, and that swimming gives away too many medals.
By the logic of the pundits (who include writers from ESPN, CNN, and elswhere), Olympians who can only win one medal per Games are just a bunch of slugs. Notice to sporting authorities: if you want your athletes to become famous, add 30 new categories of competition to your sport, then claim greatness by way of gold count.
The absurdities of Olympic coverage have become so commonplace as to almost defy comment … but having personally watched hundred of “Great Olympic” biathletes give their heart and soul to their sport in 2006 – quietly and without just reward – I just can't let this one slide.
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