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Who’s the greatest Olympian of all time?

Posted on by Phillip Lee

Since my last column there have been 17 days when we have been treated to that four-yearly festival of sporting excellence that is the Olympic Games.  

One of the highlights this time was undoubtedly Usain Bolt winning three gold medals for the third Olympics running – a feat for which he was then widely described as the greatest Olympian that has ever lived.  That accolade may have come as a bit of a disappointment to Michael Phelps who, only a few days before, racked up his 28th medal, 23 of them gold, and who was similarly feted as Bolt – at least for 7 days!

 The days when Sir Steve Redgrave was called the greatest British Olympian, for his achievement of 5 rowing golds over 5 Olympics, now seem a dim and distant memory.

This raises the question of how do we define greatest?  How do we compare athletics, with rowing, with  cycling, with swimming?  How do we take into account the number of separate events that a sport has available to it?  How important should the duration of the event be?  Is it more difficult to win a race over 2,000 metres with three other people helping you than it is to win one by yourself over 100 metres? 

How do we compare the performances of today with those of yesteryear?  Who knows how many medals Jesse Owens would have added to his 4 in 1936 had the Second World War not intervened.  Would the original ‘Flying Finn’, Parvo Nurmi, have added to his 12 (9 Gold) long distance medals if the IOC hadn’t banned him in 1932 for allegedly accepting payments during a tour of the USA.

By the standards that were in place for most of the time covered by the modern Olympics, today’s athletes have never had it so good.  State of the art tracks and equipment. Clothing and footwear personally tailored to meet their body frame and needs.  And perhaps most importantly, the ability to be a professional sportsman or woman, and so be able to focus solely on training for their events.

Of equal interest, it raises the question of why we need to define anything as the greatest?  And it is not just athletes – we have similar lists of the greatest books, plays, prime ministers, presidents. The BBC has recently listed the greatest films of the 21st century in what some may see as jumping the gun by a few years.  Perhaps, at its heart, is a need that we all have to believe that we are, indeed, living in the greatest of times.

 I admire and applaud Usain Bolt…as I do Michael Phelps.  Were they the greatest on the day?  Absolutely.  Were they the greatest of all time?  We can never know.