Monday, August 18, 2008

Greatest of All-Time?

I'll write this here because I don't have a swimming blog. For once, I can't weave in the Habs (well maybe I'll think of a way)... More on the Habs later.

I should also mention, I once was a very very bad hockey player trapped in a half decent swimmer's body. I don't know everything there is to know about swimming (or hockey for that matter), but I have an opinion on this whole Phelps debate. I have seen this get pretty animated, even on hockey boards and blogs recently, so I thought it would be fun to see what some good old Habs fans thought of the matter.

To start with, a disclaimer: I hate hype in general. In general, I dislike the hyped. I usually go out of my way to quell hype I see as unwarranted. So, before these Olympics, I didn't buy the Michael Phelps story. I liked Laszlo Cseh (did anyone even mention him these past weeks), I liked Kitajima and I liked Taehwan Park - anyone that was excelling at swimming in the shadow of Phelps.

But, let me tell you Phelps changed my mind. In all my years of swimming, swimming coaching and spectating, I have never, ever seen anyone do what he did. And, he did it at the Olympics - one Olympics, over 8 measly days.


The arguments against him are convincing if you want to buy them, but I feel many have flaws:

1) He has won so many medals because he has so many chances in swimming

This is the sour grapes, Michael Johnson line. The rebuttal to this question is in two parts:

a) In swimming so many events, he also multiplies his competition. Laszlo Cseh, for example has known for 4, maybe 8 years that Michael Phelps could be targeted in 200 IM and 400 IM. Laszlo swims both. He skips the 200 Fr, the 100 Fly, all the relays. he could do them, he'd be good, probably final, but he focuses - to try and beat Phelps.

He's not even the best example. There's a truckload of people who only do freestyle, maybe only 200 Fr. None of them can beat Phelps. Same for sprint butterflyers.

Phelps opens himself to more opposition and gives himself more opportunity to fail. But he didn't slip - not once.

b) Does the fact that swimming lends itself to competition across events disqualify any swimmer from being the best athlete or Olympian? I shouldn't think that it would, as that would be just as fair. Surely, though, since there are so many events, the only way to show true athletic greatness would be to win across multiple events. Exactly waht Phelps has done, not once, but in two olympiads now, and all the competitions in between.

And, if swimming is out, what could be in? Well not cycling, too many races indoors, too much drafting outdoors. Not rowing, too posh. Not gymnastics, too many opportunities to medal again. No winter sports, too local. No throwing sports, too many heavy people.

Lots of sports just keep getting eliminated. If we take it to Michael Johnson's conclusion, I fear we're left with track (maybe long jump if he feels charitable). I also have a sneaky feeling which 2 events would make the list for consideration.


So why eliminate swimming? Well, apparently...

2) Swimmng isn't as hard as some of the other sports

I know people who are saying this have never done a 400 IM, and most definitely have never trained to be a 400 IM swimmer.

I think it is easy to dismiss swimming because it is not an ultra-endurance test like the marathon (or Tour de france if we leave the Olympics), but the races Phelps does are extended sprints - all of them. And, sprinting for 4 minutes (only 4 for a 400 IM?, mind boggling) is very difficult, no matter what the medium.

And, from what I've seen over the past 10 days, many and most Olympic racing disciplines also fall into the extended sprint category. In that regard, I think it's very possible to compare him across sports.

Just because Phelps make it look easy doesn't mean that it is easy.


3) Decathlon lays out the greatest athlete for us

I am a big fan of decathlon, don't get me wrong. I am pretty sure I would rate most decathletes very highly among top Olympians of all time. But decathlon is designed as a 10-event competition. No one does 7, everyone does 10. Sure you have to do them well to beat the other decathletes, but I've never seen a 400 m world record in a decathlon, nobody's outvaulting Bubka here. Decathletes compete to be the best overall decathlete. They are the best average athletes.

It may seem that that is what Phelps did, but he didn't. No one of his peers swam 5 individual events. No, he competed largely against 5 sets of specialists and won. If a decathlete drops out of decathlon and goes on to contend in long jump, pole vault and hurdles at the next Olympics, you would have some idea what an unprecedented (except for Spitz nearly) feat that Phelps accomplished.


Of course this is all conjecture...

Of course it is. Full of weights and values for different sporting attributes. The final argument in Phelps' favour, in my opinion, though, goes across sports - mental toughness.

For me, I suppose, his greatest feat is that he won at every event he tried. Every time someone beat his old best time (read world record), he set a new one. He was the ultimate competitor. I certinly got the feeling he would win anything somebody would challenge him in. In some ways, his feat of concentration and determination outweighed his physical accomplishments (which included swimming half of the events on a schedule faster than anyone has ever done before).

He showed some great athletes the limits of what they thought was possible by smashing through them. He was as great as anyone could be in their chosen arena of competition.

As a hockey fan, I would cite Wayne Gretzky's 51-game point streak (where he got 153 points) as a rare comparison. Imagine 3-points every game for 4 months straight form a player - that's Phelps.

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