Monday, August 6, 2012

Let's Keep Things In Perspective

Can someone under the age of 40 promise me that once my generation--the last to remember sports coverage in the Pre-NBC, Pre-NFL Network, Pre-35-Channels-Dedicated-To-The-Olympics era--dies off that you won't forget about everything that happened more than 24-hours ago?  I ask this following the designation of Michael Phelps as THE GREATEST OLYMPIAN IN HISTORY!!!!!!!!!!!

There is no doubt that Phelps is the greatest winner in the history of the The Games.  The numbers clearly bear that out--22 medals overall, 18 of those gold.  But numbers don't automatically make you "The Greatest"--that's why baseball historians would never pick Barrry Bonds or Pete Rose as the greatest players of all time--even though they have the most home runs and hits in the game's history.  And not many football fans would start the discussion of all-time greatest with Emmitt Smith or Brett Favre--despite their all-time yardage records.  Besides, today's Olympics are nothing like those of other contenders for "GOAT" (Greatest of All Time) like Eric Heiden, Al Oerter, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis.

First, let's start with the medal count.  Swimming lends itself to a ton of medals every Olympics.  Four different "strokes", multiple distances and relays just provide more chances to win.  How many medals do you think Carl Lewis could have won if they had the 100-meter backward dash--or the shuffle-step 4x200 relay?  And Lewis won his golds in both sprint events and long jump--two disciplines that swimmers can't match.  Eric Heiden won gold medals in distances ranging from 500 to 10-thousand meters.  That would be akin to Usain Bolt winning the 100-meters and the marathon on the track.

Secondly, Phelps has benefited from greatly relaxed eligibility requirements for Olympians.  Al Oerter won the gold in discus in four consecutive Olympics--and nearly qualified for the US team in 1980--at the age of 43!  But Oerter had to work a "real job" for the four years between Olympiads.  He didn't get to do Subway commercials, or model watches or get boucoup bucks for wearing a certain pair of shorts or shoes.  Eric Heiden probably would have dominated ice skating for several Olympics following Lake Placid in 1980--but he too had to go to work--as a doctor in Madison (which he finds far more fulfilling than skating around in circles, by the way).

Lastly, the "pressure" on Michael Phelps to win all of those medals is as much media hype as it was internal.  NBC based its entire Beijing games coverage around the "Drive for Eight".  But is that pressure equal to what Jesse Owens competed under at the Berlin Games?  Did Michael Phelps swim with the hopes of an entire race of people on his back?  Jesse took all of the Aryan supremacy junk that Hitler was promoting and threw it right back in his face.  Will we look back 70-years from today and say "Michael Phelps really showed the world that dorky-looking tall guys were really the equal of their shorter, more handsome counterparts?"

So let's let Michael Phelps accomplishments over the last 12-years sit on the shelf for a few years--or an entire generation--before we start bestowing the "Greatest of All Time" label to what he has accomplished.

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