Thursday, August 2, 2012

Measuring greatness at the Olympics

How should we measure greatness at the Olympics? This thought was brought on just after Michael Phelps received his 19th Olympic medal. Many accorded him the accolade, "the greatest Olympian of all time."

This is an amazing achievement, but does he deserve to be called the greatest ? No less an authority than Sebastian Coe was reticent to bestow the ultimate crown on on Phelps.

“My personal view is I’m not sure he’s the greatest,” Lord Coe, who won two gold metals in athletics and is now the head of the London organizing committee, said. “But he’s certainly the most successful.”

Phelps is indeed successful, as the following list reveals (as of August 1, 2012):

Most medals won by one Olympic athlete
1Michael PhelpsUnited States2004-12Swim152219
2Larysa LatyninaSoviet Union1956-64Gym95418
3Nikolay AndrianovSoviet Union1972-80Gym75315
4Borys ShakhlinSoviet Union1956-64Gym74213
Takashi OnoJapan1952-64Gym54413
Edoardo MangiarottiItaly1936-60Fencing65213
7Natalie CoughlinUnited States2004-12Swim34512
Aleksey NemovRussia1996-2000Gym42612
Bjørn DæhlieNorway1992-98CC Ski84012
Jenny ThompsonUnited States1992-2004Swim83112
Dara TorresUnited States1984-2008Swim44412
Birgit Fischer-SchmidtEast Ger./Germany1980-2004Canoe84012
Sawao KatoJapan1968-76Gym83112
Paavo NurmiFinland1920-28Athletics93012
15Ole Einar BjørndalenNorway1998-2010Biath64111
Matt BiondiUnited States1984-92Swim82111
Mark SpitzUnited States1968-72Swim91111
Věra ČáslavskáCzechoslovakia1960-68Gym74011
Viktor ChukarinSoviet Union1952-56Gym73111
Carl OsburnUnited States1912-24Shoot54211
Most gold medals won by one Olympic athlete
1Michael PhelpsUnited States2004-12Swim152219
2Ray EwryUnited States1900-08Athletics100010
3Carl LewisUnited States1984-96Athletics91010
Mark SpitzUnited States1968-72Swim91111
Larysa LatyninaSoviet Union1956-64Gym95418
Paavo NurmiFinland1920-28Athletics93012
7Bjørn DæhlieNorway1992-98CC Ski84012
Jenny ThompsonUnited States1992-2004Swim83112
Matt BiondiUnited States1984-92Swim82111
Birgit Fischer-SchmidtEast Ger./Germany1980-2004Canoe84012
Sawao KatoJapan1968-76Gym83112
Winter Olympics
Summer Olympics


Even International Olympic committee president Jacques Rogge is hesitant to put Phelps above everyone else. Rogge notes that Phelps is“definitely one of the greatest.” But, Rogge explains, "You cannot reduce everything to the medals." He does admit, however, "It is a landmark."
It is indeed a landmark. This record will not be broken any time soon. Phelps now has won almost twice the number of gold medals than anyone else. The questions remains, however, is he really the greatest Olympian of all time? I too my doubts.

At the Olympics, greatness is measured by the number of medals that are won. Competition is healthy, but are medals the best measurement of greatness? What about athletes who put on the best performance ever, but still do not win a medal, are they not equally great? They have done their best, and thus they can rightfully be proud of their achievement. So should the nation they represent.

I do not mean to diminish Phelp's achievement, but he earned his medals in a sport where he can reveal his talents in many Olympic events, unlike some sports where an athlete only has one opportunity to perform. Medal count alone is not the measurement of greatness.

Not only individuals but nations also vie for Olympic medals. If nations want to compete, sport is a much preferred alternative to war. When the original Olympics were played, wars were temporarily suspended.

Ancient list of Olympic victors of the 75th to the 78th, and from

 the 81st to the 83rd Olympiads (480–468 BC, 456–448 BC).

Some nations go to great lengths to win medals. They will even encourage their teams to cheat, as happened in badminton.

China uses of the most demanding and controversial training systems in the world in order to reap the medals  at the Olympics. Children as young as six are selected and sent to elite sports schools, of which there are more than 3,000, training 400,000 athletes. There are accusations that children are abused at these schools.

However, fewer than 400 will make the Olympic team. The success of the Chinese program is phenomenal. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China won a record-breaking 51 gold medals, and 100 overall.

The United States has also been very successful in harvesting medals. In 2008, the US won 36 gold medals but 110 in total. Good training and lots of money seem to be the key to success at the Olympics.

In striking contrast, in 2008 India won only three medals in all, while Canada, earned a total of 18. I have listed the top twenty nations, together with the number of medals that each won.

1 China (CHN)512128100
2 United States (USA)363836110
3 Russia (RUS)23212973
4 Great Britain (GBR)19131547
5 Germany (GER)16101541
6 Australia (AUS)14151746
7 South Korea (KOR)1310831
8 Japan (JPN)961025
9 Italy (ITA)891027
10 France (FRA)7161841
11 Ukraine (UKR)751527
12 Netherlands (NED)75416
13 Kenya (KEN)64414
14 Jamaica (JAM)63211
15 Spain (ESP)510318
16 Belarus (BLR)451019
17 Romania (ROU)4138
18 Ethiopia (ETH)4127
19 Canada (CAN)39618
20 Poland (POL)36110

If one compares the population of Canada with that of the US and China, for example, Canada on a per capita basis won more medals in 2008 than both of these countries.

Maybe the medal haul of countries should be evaluated per capita. Unfortunately, that would still leave poor India somewhere near the bottom of the list. Australia, however, would fare especially well on this basis.

This proposal would not be very popular with the countries near the top of this list. Thus it is not likely to be introduced, but maybe some of the media might be willing to provide such a list, if only for interest sake.

The Bible realizes that in a race there can be only one winner (1 Corinthians 9:24), but the next verse teaches the ephemeral nature of the prize the winner receives. It uses a very different measurement than what is used in the Olympics.

Will people still remember Michael Phelps fifty years from now? Probably not. But people still remember the amazing accomplishment of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when a black man rubbished the Nazi idea of the Ubermensch. Although he only won four gold medals, Owens changed the world.

Let Phelps and the other medal winners (and their countries!) bask in their brief moment of glory. Sic transit gloria mundi (worldly things are fleeting). One might very gently remind them of this, but that would maybe spoil the party.

Enjoy the Olympics! But take the results with a huge grain of salt. The athletes and their families may savor their moments of victory for awhile, but for most of us it is merely entertainment. 

Let's treat the results as a momentary distraction from the problems of the world. People will continue to die in Syria and elsewhere. Don't forget about them as you watch the Olympics.

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