At a pizza and beer social with my masters swim team a teammate leaned over and asked, “Do you think Phelps is for real?” Before I could put down the beer and reply my coach answered for me. The abridged version can be paraphrased as ‘We know he’s for real because he’s always been Michael Phelps’. One of the select few destined for greatness in their sport. At this year’s Olympics I watched the performance of another athlete marked for stardom but around which swirls persistent rumours of performance enhancing drugs. Usain Bolt. It does not help quell doubters the facts that Jamaica didn’t have a national anti-doping agency going into Beijing, that several Jamaican sprinters have been caught cheating over the years, or the improbability such a small country could dominate both men’s and women’s sprints. Yet there are other countries who lord over a single sport all out of proportion to their size. New Zealand for example, another island nation, reigns supreme over the world of rugby; the relatively small country of Canada is the perennial favorite in ice hockey; and Brazil sees its football players acknowledged as representing the very best in the world. Jamaica’s national sport is sprinting. Are we surprised Tiger Woods is an American? Wayne Gretzky is a Canadian? Then should we be surprised it was Jamaica, where sprinting is the national sport, which produced Usain Bolt?
Having never seen Bolt run but having read so much about this young prodigy I was very interested to watch him compete. Seeing him race was thrilling. There's little doubt in my mind Bolt is the real deal. His physical size and build, his youth, and that beautiful stride – if a man can do what was done that night without drugs then Usain Bolt surely is that man.
However the topic of this post is not Bolt but Phelps, because his now epic achievement seems to demand consideration as the “greatest of them all”. Not everyone agrees with this assessment. A runner's blog dismissed Phelps’ Beijing triumph by denigrating swimming as an Olympic sport, “... we’d be giving out medals for the 125, 150 and 175”. Clearly a man who hasn’t even swum 100 meters, much less tried doing it butterfly. Yet for me Phelps’ foremost accomplishment is not the number of gold medals, or the number of world records he set, but the fact he managed to do it all so well in nine days.
Contrary to the aforementioned blogger’s belief that an excess of swimming events exists the facts show the number of Olympic medals offered by the two sports is roughly comparable. Track has eleven individual, one combined (pentathlon for the women and the decathlon for the men) and two relay events for each sex; whereas swimming has eleven individual, two combined (the 200 and 400 IM) and three relay events for each. Three of Phelps’ gold medals and world records were in the relays. Likewise relays figure prominently in the great track Olympians’ haul of gold medals. Both Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis, for example, won golds in the 4x100 relay while Paavo Nurmi won two of his five 1924 gold medals in the 3,000m and 8,000m cross country team events. In order for proper comparison of individual talents, however, we should put these aside. That leaves Phelps winning five compared to the three individual gold medals collected by each of our track legends.
In athletics the ultimate in success is considered to be the “double”, or Olympic gold medals in two individual track events. It’s considered almost impossible to compete for more given the strikingly different abilities required to run sprints, middle distance, and the distance events. With distances roughly doubling each time the range required to win three is simply too much. Then too, as the distances go up, the problem of exhaustion rears its head. Both Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis doubled in the 100 and 200 in their respective Olympics. In Beijing we were treated to a rare double double: Usain Bolt in the 100 and 200 and Ethiopia’s twenty three year old Tirunesh Debaba in the women’s 5,000 and 10,000. Owens and Lewis supplemented their doubles with a win in the long jump. Paavo Nurmi did it the hard way by performing a triple, possibly the only Olympic track triple in history, by winning the 1,500, 5,000 and 5,000 cross country (nowadays this is the 3,000 steeplechase). And don’t forget his team event golds were in distances of 3,000 and 8,000 meters! No wonder Nurmi is an Olympic icon.
For a runner to win five golds to match Phelps he or she would have to win, say, the 400, the 400 hurdles, the 800, and the 1,500. That’s four, which leaves the 200 or the 3,000 steeplechase as the obvious remaining options for the fifth. Only the great Michael Johnson has ever doubled the 200 and 400 (normally the two events mark the dividing line between sprints and middle distance respectively) and going in the opposite direction and adding the steeplechase makes a seemingly impossible situation worse. Winning five golds, even by adding the quick 200, still means racing at a world-class pace throughout nearly twenty three minutes of an incredible mish mash of prelims, semis, and finals. Anyone who competes in track will say that's surely impossible. To attempt five by adding the steeplechase would make the situation even worse. No wonder our blogger friend believed any sport which allows five individual gold medals must be inferior to his beloved athletics.
He fails, however, to comprehend the critical input technique contributes towards success in swimming; an attribute which is also crucial to success in gymnastics - the only other remaining Olympic sport blessed with an abundance of multiple gold medalists. A swimmer or gymnast who exhibits an advantage in technique over the world will be able to transfer this advantage to all events, even non-specialties. Runners must do it on physical ability alone. Gymnasts need to depend on strength, flexibility, and technique. Not swimming – swimmers can succeed going either way, but should an individual combine both raw physical strength and stamina with a more efficient technique than the rest then wonderful things will happen. No wonder swimming dominates the multiple gold medal winners in Olympic history. Phelps not only has incredible natural talent but has a clear advantage over the world with his turns. It’s this, combined with his phenomenal ability to recover, which brought him his scintillating achievement. Totaling up all his events Phelps raced nearly thirty three minutes to win his eight gold medals, an incredible display of endurance. Only Nurmi himself has matched that amazing combination of recovery and stamina.¹ Is Phelps the greatest Olympian ever? Personally I’m philosophically opposed to such measurements. I don’t think you can compare athletic performances from different sports and to date no one has been able to arrive at a defendable formula to do so. Besides I believe I’ve demonstrated swimming has a stronger tendency than any other sport to reward dominance with more individual chances at gold medals. But regardless Michael Phelps’ achievement at this year’s Beijing Olympic is epic in its nature. Something indeed for the history books.
¹Nurmi’s ability to recover was legendary too. In order to compete in the 5,000 meter final at the 1924 Paris Olympics he had to line up for the race only twenty six minutes after taking gold in the 1,500.
Update: I have subsequently read that there have been others who've achieved the 200-400 Olympic double. One of these is Frenchwoman Marie-Jose Perec who doubled in the same Atlanta Games as Johnson. I have to plead mea culpa for omitting her feat. I unfortunately share the strong tendency of males everywhere to be blithely unaware of female athletic competitions and their achievements. Even more regrettably I haven't yet been able to identify a possible third who accomplished this trick. Perhaps the deed occurred in the distant past. I'll make the correction when I finally do learn his or her name.