First, a bit of background: Mike Pesca, host of the podcast “The Gist,” regular panelist on the sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen,” and bearer of a name that would suggest some sympathy for swimmers of all species, hinted this last week that Michael Phelps may not be the greatest olympian of all time because of the sheer number of possible swimming medals available. Because there are so many chances to earn medals, that gives Phelps more opportunities to win medals than athletes in other sports. This, as he indicated atone point, is objectively true. It’s also not an original argument; it’s one I’ve heard every four years for the last 8 years or so, often with the addendum that if there were a 100 meter backwards dash, then Usain Bolt would win that, too.
What follows is my response to Mike Pesca’s Afterball on this week’s Hang Up and Listen where he reiterates his point about swimming and seems nonplussed (one of his favorite words) at people’s inability to grasp his point. He suggests that the people who argue for Phelps and the number of swimming medals inclusion in the Olympics don’t seem to be used to arguing about sports and don’t seem to appreciate Pesca’s demotion of the status of an American athlete in particular (because of patriotism?). Anyone who knows me, knows that I love to argue about all sports, so I try to buck the trend. I sent this letter to him two days ago and he responded right away. I don’t know if he fully buys my argument but I’ll reprint his response below for the sake of disclosure. Apologies for the humblebrag in the second paragraph.
First of all, I follow lots of sports, which is why my favorite podcast is Hang up and Listen. Second, I’m not super patriotic. I live in Canada, my kids were born in the UK, I haven’t lived in the US since 1998 and have no set plans to move back even though I mainly pay attention to American politics, the NBA, and the Texas Rangers. Which is to say, I guess I’m not your normal sparring partner when it comes to Michael Phelps and swimming.
Let me also say that I’m kind of with you when you give your reasons that swimming events at the Olympics pool are a bit diluted (pardon the pun). You make some good points when you argue that Phelps’ medal count does not necessarily make him the greatest Olympian. And this is coming from a swimmer. I was the scholar athlete of the year at my Texas high school and, much much more recently, British Columbia masters provencial champion in the 100m freestyle for my age group. But despite my decent success in the pool, I would never consider myself a top athlete. I’m just a fine swimmer.
That being said, I still think Phelps is the greatest Olympian so far and, ironically, it actually does have to do with the number of medals he’s won. This is despite the fact that you (and many others, you are definitely not the first) seem to think many swimming events are superfluous (or, at least, not different enough from other events to merit extra medals at the Olympics).
First, some quibbles: It seems to me that you are comparing swimming mainly to track and field and so (I’m guessing here) might open the possibility that Usain Bolt is a greater Olympian than Michael Phelps. Forgive me for putting words in your mouth, but I’ve heard other people put these words in their own mouths so I’m making assumptions based on them. That being said, no swimmer that I know of would protest added track and field events. I don’t see why adding backwards running would be a bad thing in the next Olympics. Who wouldn’t love to see Usain Bolt running backwards for 100 meters? 200 meters would be even better if he had to navigate the curve backwards. Would it seem ridiculous? To some, I’m sure. But running backwards actually does require a different skill set and the use of different muscles (like the different strokes does for swimming, and maybe even more so). It would be a true test of Bolt’s dominance and not a given that he would win such an event.
Secondly, you mentioned in Hang Up and Listen’s Afterball this week that there is quite a bit of overlap among 200 IM racers and 400 IM racers, implying, I guess, that one of those is unnecessary. As a point of argument, you note that 200 meter runners often medal in the 100 meter race or the 400 meter race, but rarely both. But doesn’t that open up the possibility that we really are just missing the 800 IM in swimming? If we have the 800 IM, I’m guessing that there would be some 800 IM winners on the 400 IM podium along with 200 IM winners, but few 800 IM swimmers that also make the podium for the 200 IM. Wouldn’t that fit with what you are saying better?
Thirdly, some scientists have argued that Bolt could win the long jump with little difficulty, though it might interfere with his training in the 100. I think it is a legitimate problem with choosing Bolt over Phelps as greatest Olympian of this century if he chooses only to race in three races when he clearly would be competitive at a fourth event. And, is it that unreasonable to think he couldn’t at least try to win the 400? In 2008, Phelps won the 100 butterfly, the 200 freestyle, and the 400 IM. Are they similar? Maybe, but they still require a combination of speed and stamina that one would like to see Bolt replicate on the track. (Note that Mark Spitz did not swim a 400 meter event in 1972 when he won 7 golds.) If Bolt added at least the 400 or the long jump, I think the case could be made that he is greater than Phelps. But Phelps, at least, attempted to earn all he could earn.
And that’s why I would pick Phelps over Bolt as the greatest Olympian. It’s not that the events in which he swam were not different enough. It’s that he did all he was capable of and didn’t hold back. And not only that, in one Olympiad, he never lost. In 8 events, with multiple heats, in 100, 200, and 400 meters, and with all the world gunning for him, he never faulted and never lost. Even Simone Biles, who I have no reason to think is not the greatest gymnast of all time, even she got bronze in an event she has dominated throughout the rest of the week. Phelps pushed himself to the limit 8 years ago and succeeded in a way that Bolt chose not to do and Biles was unable to do (at least this year).
Consider also that Bolt and Biles have not yet had the opportunity to win the same event four times over four Olympiads and I think Phelps has the belt. Whether the 200 IM should be an event in your eyes or not, it’s not as if he wasn’t swimming against the world’s best in that event all four times. Couple that feat of longevity with the feat of catching lightning in a bottle in 2008 and I don’t see the issue here. Phelps may not be as great an athlete as Bolt or Biles (whatever that means) but he is a greater Olympian (for now).
These are all fair points. And phelps might very well be the greatest Olympian. He’s nearly flawless. I won’t guess bolt would be the competition for that though.