Apropos the Olympics – Part 8: Tired of hearing about ‘the best of all times’

so what does a medal tell you?

Already during the two Olympic weeks, but even more after the completion of the event, there has been an absolute hysteria around the discussion about ‘the best Olympic athlete of all times’. What caused this particular focus was of course the ability of Michael Phelps to add to his medal collection so that he has now, after three Olympic Games, 18 gold medals and four ‘lesser’ ones. This is obviously much more than anyone else gained throughout a career.

This causes some people to proclaim that the mere numbers make it obvious that Phelps is the best athlete who has ever existed. Let me say that I happily recognize his great achievements, his efforts, and his ability to persist over a considerable period of time. But in my opinion, ANY attempts to use medal counts, or any other method, to try to establish who is the best ever, are completely flawed and really undesirable. I know that it is in the human nature to want to make such comparisons and proclamation, so nothing I say will put a stop to it, but I still want to make my arguments.

I have some appreciation for the desire to make comparison over time within one and the same sport. For instance, who is the best handball player ever? And I understand that it is both tempting and interesting to compare performances in different sports and then try to establish who has made the greatest accomplishments, whose achievement requires the broadest skill set, the strongest talent, or the greatest effort. But for me personally, it is a rather futile exercise, in part because most of us understand too little about each event to be able to compare, and mainly because there are no meaningful criteria by which comparisons across sports can be made.

Presumably that is part of the reason why it is so tempting, and so supposedly convincing, to use medal counts as a basis. But it should be rather obvious that this does not tell us a lot. What is the real reason that Phelps can win so many medals; is it really that he is superior to a boxer, runner, rower, shooter, wrestler or fencer? Well, of course not! Even after I leave out the team sports, it is clear that most other athletes have only ONE chance to win a medal, while a few have a realistic opportunity to win two or more.

In some sports you have different distances or variations that require such similar skill sets that it is realistic to be a multiple medal winner. A runner or kayaker could combine two distances, a tennis or badminton player could win in singles and doubles, and in some individual sports there is a separate medal chance for teams, simply by aggregating the results of individuals. (This latter approach is in my opinion unfortunate, as it goes against the spirit of the Olympic Charter which de-emphasizes such aggregating of results by nation).

Then of course you have a few sports that are designed to be testing the capacity to handle totally different activities, viz., decathlon/heptathlon, modern pentathlon and triathlon. I think it is a good illustration that even the most outstanding participant in decathlon never really has the skills to compete for the medals in one of the ten individual events. To my mind, such versatile athlete would have every reason to wonder why it is possible for others, such as Phelps, to use a much narrower set of skills to win a multitude of medals.

Put differently, again without taking issue with the achievements of Phelps, his ability to win so many medals really speaks more about a clearly inappropriate generosity in the number of very similar medal events in swimming. The ability to win medals in different styles plus in individual medley suggests that there is clear an excess of events, and if you then add the relays it really has gone too far. To start with, one could surely eliminate one distance for each of three ‘special’ strokes and individual medley and two of the distances for freestyle, without creating any unfairness for the participants, if one compares with other sports. And two forms of relays seems to be at least one too many.

The IOC is generally striving to modernize the Olympic Games by inserting new sports, and the efforts and experiments in the Youth Olympic Games seem to be a step in the right direction. Apart from the apparent excesses in swimming, there are other team competitions in individual sports that add very little (except space for additional participants) and there are entire sports that are no longer as ‘modern’ as even their explicit names suggest. As I was noting in an earlier article, a major purpose of the Olympic Games is to be a source of INSPIRATION. But this means that, to get the attention of younger generations, the program of the Games has be constantly renewed, so the IOC would be wise to speed up this effort. And this cannot happen unless some cuts in the current program are made!