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Fellow greats from other disciplines have not had the opportunities Michael Phelps has made good use of to win medals at the Olympic Games. Francois Xavier Marit / AFP
Fellow greats from other disciplines have not had the opportunities Michael Phelps has made good use of to win medals at the Olympic Games. Francois Xavier Marit / AFP

Olympics: The numbers do not add up

Michael Phelps might be the greatest Olympian but just as well might not be. I would go with no, because of all his multifaceted medal possibilities.

Hoorah for Michael Phelps and the Olympic medals record, but something does gnaw.

They sure do give out a lot of medals for swimming.

They give them for people who swim really, really fast (50 metres), really fast (100 metres), plenty fast (200 metres), fast (400 metres), measuredly fast (800 metres) and even more measuredly fast (1,500 metres).

They give medals for people who can go not so far, really not that far, a little farther, kind of far, really quite far and uncommonly far.

You might say they do the same for running, and you might be right, but then for swimming they also dole out medals for people who like a view of the sky or ceiling while swimming (backstroke), people who like to swim by a stroke many of us cannot even perform (butterfly), people who would rather pull their arms out of the water while swimming (freestyle) and people who would rather keep their arms in the water while swimming (breaststroke).

Had they kept it all along to one short course, one long course and one stroke, it would not have qualified as the world's greatest travesty.

But then, they go ahead and forge another category: an individual medley for people who might be capable of swimming all those strokesand recollecting which one to do at which time, all in one swoop. They think up two proper distances for this "medley" and one wonders why not three.

That still being insufficient, they have two relays in freestyle and one in medley.

It is as if in swimming, they try to reward as many muscle fibres as possible, and good for them, but I'm just saying: that's a lot of medals. There is also a 10-kilometre swimming marathon, after which the gold medallist has usually developed a dorsal fin.

You can see how a guy with extraordinary talent, frame and drive might cull a dazzling 19 medals. Michael Phelps has three medals in the 200m butterfly, three in the 4x200m freestyle, three in the 4x100m freestyle relay, two in the 100m butterfly, two in the 200m individual medley, two in the 400m individual medley, two in the 4x100 metres and two in the 200m freestyle.

So is he the greatest Olympian ever? You can make the case, but you have to weigh up how the numbers sway us. The numbers do compel. The numbers mean that if Phelps put all the medals on his neck, he might break it (his neck). All the distances and disciplines in swimming make it a hard sport to recollect from Olympiad to Olympiad who but a specialist remembers who won what? but 19 does do a good job of clarity.

For his trip to London, the great basketball player LeBron James can earn one medal only. The great diver Greg Louganis always could get two, so got five in three Olympics with the Moscow boycott tucked stupidly in between. Even the greatest badminton player ever might get three per Olympiad.

The Russian Zeus of wrestling, Aleksandr Karelin, not only won the super heavyweight gold in three Olympics (Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Athens 1996), and not only tacked on a silver (Sydney 2000), but he went 10 years without anybody scoring on him. The Albania-born Greek weightlifter Pyrros Dimas went gold-gold-gold-bronze. Each went to Games looking for one necklace.

When Larisa Latynina starred at Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964, she gathered her 18 medals from seven disciplines at that first Olympics and six at the other two. At both Rome and Tokyo, she won medals in the team all-around, the individual all-around, the floor, vault, uneven bars and balance beam. There were no medals for, say, a vault while moving one's arms a certain way but also a vault while moving one's arms another certain way.

Phelps's record from eight disciplines shows soaring versatility; Latynina's record from six might show more soaring versatility. Phelps's record comes against 21st-century competition and all the rivals with all the advancements both nutritional and physiological as well as artificial. Latynina's record came in gymnastics, which is stunning in its simplest forms.

Phelps might be the greatest Olympian but just as well might not be. I would go with no, because of all his multifaceted medal possibilities. But I would not slap anyone who went for yes, because for one thing it's wrong to slap people.


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