The Greatest
August 18. 2008

Sometimes people have a really hard time with the obvious.  For example, ask anyone who the greatest college basketballl player ever is and there's a good chance you'll get any number of answers.  The correct answer is Pete Maravich.  He holds the career scoring record by more than 400 points, despite playing only three years.  That's because when he was playing the NCAA did not allow freshmen to play on the varsity team.  Toss in the 741 points he scored on the freshman team and no one comes within a thousand points of him.  He ranks first, fourth and fifth for most points in a season.  Few players score a thousand points in a season; he averaged that for his career.  The next closest three-year player was the great Oscar Robertson and his point total was 700 fewer than Pistol Pete's.  He has three of the 10 highest scoring games in history and scored 50 points or more a record 28 times.  He averaged 44.2 points per game for his career, which is almost 10 points per game more than the #2 guy and he did this when there was no three point shot.  All of Maravich's games were charted and had the current college three-pointer been in play, Maravich would have popped an average of 13 threes per game, pushing his scoring average to 57 points per contest for his career if he played today.  

The kicker is that shooting wasn't even the best part of his game - ball-handling and passing were.  Watch video of any of his games and you are likely to see as many between the legs or behind the back or no look passes as you would see in an NBA All-Star game.  If the Pistol didn't invent the moves, he most certainly perfected them.  His career assist numbers don't look all that impressive, averaging 5.4 per game for his career with a peak of 6.0 his senior season.  But remember that in order to record an assist, the guy you pass the ball to has to score; if he can't shoot, you don't get an assist.  Even coaching legend John Wooden called Pete Maravich the greatest ballhandler he had ever seen.

He had the talent to be a one-man team but he didn't play like one.  His freshman team at LSU lost only one game while the varsity team went 3-20.  Once he was eligible, he put the program on his back and by his senior year the varsity went 20-8, losing in the final four of the NIT tournament to eventual champion Marquette.  Back then only conference champions got into the NCAA tourney and Kentucky was about as automatic as UCLA to win it's conference every year.  Imagine how entertaining it would have been had they used today's format for the NCAA tournament, with Maravich's LSU team as a play-in facing those UCLA teams at the height of their dynasty.  The two teams did meet in the regular season in 1970 and the Bruins held Maravich to only 38 points and 14-of-42 shooting at Pauley Pavilion on their way to a 133-84 blow-out.  However, that game was the Tigers' fourth in six days on a cross-country road trip and two days after a game in which Oregon State sent him to the free throw line 31 times.  On a neutral court with almost a week between games, who knows what might have happened.  Oh, and he did all this on arthritic knees.

Interesting college basketball trivia:  Who is the only coach in the history of  University of Kansas men’s basketball to own a losing record?  James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. He coached at the University of Kansas from 1898 to 1907 ending his basketball coaching career there with a record of 55 wins and 60 losses.

Anyway, with Michael Phelps winning 8 gold medals in this Olympics, the media has gone into overdrive making the obvious claim that he is the greatest Olympian ever.  But is this really that obvious?  Is Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian?

What he has done is, no question, incredible.  But just because he won more medals in one games or more gold medals overall doesn't necessarily make him the greatest ever.  I know that sounds strange, but hear me out.  I'll concede he is the greatest swimmer ever but not because of his medal count.  When Mark Spitz won his seven medals in Munich, there were no 50-meter events.  Spitz was the world record holder in both the 100 meter freestyle and the 100 meter butterfly so it's reasonable to assume that he could have at least been competitive in the 50 meter races.  In fact, it has not been uncommon for the the same racer to win gold in both.  American Matt Biondi did it in 1998 when the event was introduced, and the "Russian Rocket" Alexander Popov did it in 1992 and 1996.  So Spitz conceivably could have won 9 golds in Munich had he been given the opportunity.  No, what seperates Phelps from Spitz is that Phelps won gold in medley races where he has to swim all four competitive strokes.  Spitz was great in the free and the fly, but there really isn't any evidence that he could have been competitive enough in backstoke and breaststroke to win those combine swims.

But back to opportunity... swimmers have more opportunities to win medals that any other sportsmen at the games.  For example, if you are the best at 100 meter freestyle, not only can you win gold in that race, but you can also win gold swimming that same stroke at the same distance in both the 4x100 freestyle relay and the freestyle leg of the 4x100 medley, especially if you are an American.  The US men have won the freestyle relay 8 of the 10 times it's been raced, and the medley 12 of the 13 times it's been run.  American women have been nearly as successful in those races, winning the freestyle relay 13 times and the medley 8 times.  In no other competition can you do one very specific thing and win three gold for it.  Additionally, every stroke at the 100m distance has an opportunity to win a second gold through a relay race, and with freestyle the opportunity exists to win double gold at the 200m distance, too.  This is how Phelps won 3 of his 8 medals, meaning that he contributed only 25% of the effort needed to win those medals.       

The best a sprinter can do is win 2 gold with a single event and even then his/her opportunities are limited.  There is a 4x100 relay and a 4x400 relay but no 4x200 relay.  So all those crossover sprinters like Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt and most famously Michael Johnson in 1996 can only win three medals at their chosen disciplines.  This is what makes Jesse Owens effort at the 1936 games so monumental: he added long jump, a completely different discipline, to his medal regimen.  Only Carl Lewis was able to duplicate his feat but even that was pharmaceutically enhanced.  A gymnast can win only team gold and an event gold.  One can't be a specialist at just one apparatus and expect to win individual all-around gold.  

This is why many of those listed with the most olympic medals - five of the top 15 - are swimmers.  One of the biggest stories at these games, Dara Torres, has 12 olympic medals, 4 of each color.  She has no individual golds and only one individual silver, although that silver was just .01 seconds from gold.  The rest of her medals were all won in relays.  There's no debate she is an inspiring story and a fantastic swimmer.  I mean, she won her first gold before Michael Phelps was even born.  This is her fifth Olympics but conceivably this could have been her seventh as she made her first team in 1984.  Even in this day and age of specialization and longevity in sports, that is amazing.  

But just because she has 12 medals, does that make her a greater Olympian than Nadia Comenici, who finished her career with a mere 5, but dominated the 1976 games becoming the first person to score a perfect 10 in olympic competition and lighting the wildfire of popularity for women's gymnastics to what has become today?  Or discus thrower Al Oerter, who is one of only three men in history to win gold in four consecutive Olympics in the same individual event?  The other two were Carl Lewis in the long jump and Paul Elvstrom in sailing.  Or Edwin Moses, who won two 400 meter hurdles golds in 1976 and 1984, got stiffed in 1980 because of the boycott but did not lose a single race from 1977 until 1987, covering 122 races and 107 finals.  Even after this running career, he became a innovative reformer for both olympic eligibility and drug testing.  So does Dara Torres' medal count make her a greater Olympian than him?  I don't want to take anything away from Torres because her achievements border on fairy-tale, but the notion that medal count is the sole determiner of the greatness of an Olympian is downright stupid.

Speaking of stupid, anyone else notice the judging in gymnastics?  As much as possible, sports should be objective.  You race the fastest, you jump the highest, you throw the thing the farthest, you lift the most weight, you beat the other guy to a pulp.  The more a judge inolves himself in determining the outcome, the less you are playing a sport.  This is why ice skating, in my humble opinion, is not a sport.  But I give gymanstics a pass most of the time because some of the things they do are not only spectacular to watch but unbelievably challenging physically.  The flexibility and strength that are on display is mind-boggling.  But the judging in these Olympics have almost made me throw up, and I'm not a person who really ever gets nauseated.  I have never been on an amusement park ride that made me queasy.   I've eaten raw sea urchin (it's texture is like a sandy sponge that has been soaked in egg whites and tastes like salty farts) and still held onto my cookies.  I don't throw up at the sight of blood, open wounds no matter how grisly or other people throwing up and I've seen them all up close.  But watching the gymnastics judges consistently overrate the Chinese gymnasts nearly made me hurl.  

In the women's all around final, there shouldn't have been any drama as to who would win the gold or the silver.  And the Russian girl who finished fourth got completely jobbed out of bronze.  The girl who did win the bronze nearly fell off the balance beam on 5 seperate occcasions, paused long enough to have one of her moves downgraded yet still finished with a similar score to that of Shawn Johnson who executed a nearly flawless routine.  In the vault, another Chinese completely failed to land her jump, landing on her butt, yet she was scored nearly as high as eventual gold winner Nastia Liukin who absolutely nailed her vault.   The judges' Chino-mania continued throughout the individual events as Chinese gymnasts continued to blunder their way into medal contention.  This time a Chinese landed on her knees but was given a competitive score because "her starting score was so high". Call me crazy but if you don't land on your feet, you didn't do the vault.  OK, so here is the strategy for the Americans in the next Olympics: tell the judges each competitor will do a quintuple backflip with a triple twist while simultaneously solving a Rubix Cube, starting score of 57.3.  No matter what they do in the actual vault, they will win gold "because their starting scores will be so high".  

And the whole "Chinese win the tie" thing in the uneven bars was absolutely sickening, particularly because the Chinese competitor who was given the gold medal (notice I didn't say "won" it or was "awarded" it because that would suggest there was merit to her performance) was not old enough to be legally entered into the competition.  Last year she was was cited to be 13 years old and in three years' previous competitions her birthdate was listed as 1994, but the Chinese government stepped in before this Olympics commenced, stiffled all talk about her actual age and issued her a passport stating she was 16 so she could compete.  

But it's not just in gymnastics that the Chinese are getting obscenely favorable rulings.  I watched a welterweight boxing match where the Chinese competitor threw four low blows in one round yet did not get penalized.  In fact, one of those times I think he was awarded a point.   That said, it's not just the Chinese who have benefitted from inexplicably atrocious judging in boxing.  In the third round of a light flyweight bout between a Cuban and a Brazilian, the Brazilian landed a hook flush on the side of the Cuban's face yet the Cuban was awarded the point.  "Yeah, Teddy, the kid has got a good left jab and a solid overhand right, but you really gotta watch out for his ears - they are devastating."   In a middleweight match to determine who would move on to the medal rounds, a boxer from Thailand held his Khazakh opponent for the entire fight.  He received a 2-point penalty in the second round for holding yet he continued to do so for the rest of the fight and did not get any susbesquent penalties despite four more cautions for holding... "I'm going to penalize you this once but if you do it again I'm going to give you a stern talking to and tell your mother," says the referee.  Because of this, the Thai fighter was able to advance and will face the winner of the steel cage match between the Undertaker and Ray Mysterio for the title.

As amazing and inspiring as the Olympics can be and many times are - the 4x100 men's freestyle relay with Jason Lezak coming back to edge out world record holder Alain Bernard in the final leg for gold will rank up there with Michael Johnson running the 200m in 19.32 seconds as one of the most amazing sports moments I've ever seen - they are also all too often a display of the most petty, unflattering and deceitful attributes of humanity.        

Oh, yes, back to the greatest Olympian discussion... I don't know if Michael Phelps is the greatest ever.  He's certainly got a strong stake in the discussion.  But I don't think it's a slam dunk for him.  Paavo Nurmi won 9 golds (12 medals overall, six individual golds) in distance running over three Olympiads and won either gold or silver in every event in which he ever competed.  And there's Laryssa Latynina who won 9 gold medals, 18 overall competing in three Olympiads, and then after her career was a coach on the Soviet women's gymnastics dynasty that included Olympic champions Olga Korbut (four gold, two silver) and Nellie Kim (five gold, one silver). 

I'm sure there are others but my vote would go to Eric Heiden.  He won all five gold in the speed skating events - the 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m - in the 1980 Olympiad.  That would be like Usain Bolt winning the 100m dash, plus the 200m, 400m, 1500m and 5000m runs.  Or Michael Phelps winning the 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m and 1500m freestyle swims.  Say what you will about Phelps' achievements but it is vastly more difficult to train for a range of distances than it is to train for different strokes.  In fact, beyond a certain scope most athletes don't even try.  Sprinters gear their bodies so that they can maximize their burst while long distance competitors train for endurance.  To be the best in the world at both requires a physiology that is truly unique.  But Heiden didn't stop there.  After the Olympics he became a world class bicyclist and founder of a bicycling team that would one day include Lance Armstrong as a member.  He was also the first USPRO road bicycling champion, a title that Armstrong would also win in 1993.  After that he became a successful orthopedic surgeon and eventually team doctor for the US Olympic speed skating team in 2002 and 2006.  If that isn't the Olympian ideal - winning gold, then achieveing great things outside the sport and then helping others to maximize their potential as well - than I don't know what is.  It remains to be seen if Phelps will have that same kind of impact - he might very well - but for now I'm sure he's content being the face of these games and the greatest swimmer we've ever seen.  

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