The World's Greatest Olympian
NBC is declaring that Michael Phelps is the Greatest Olympian ever. They are doing it not because it is true but because NBC is shilling its product -- TV coverage of the Olympics. They want you (if you are in the US) to watch all of his upcoming races and, while you are at it, all the rest of the coverage of the Beijing Olympics.
No one at NBC has asked the question, "What does "Greatest Olympian ever" mean? The fact is that there are really two questions here which have been compressed into one. The first question is, "What are the criteria for determining who is the greatest Olympian ever?" The second is, "Who best satisfies these criteria?" NBC seems to think that the person who wins the most gold medals is the greatest Olympian ever. Another consideration is whether or not NBC believes that only Americans count. Would they be shilling a Nigerian one wonders?
Clearly, any reasonable answer to our question would begin by considering who is the greatest Olympian in each sport, broadly conceived. Nadia Comeneci could be said to be the greatest of all time since she forced a revision in how gymnastics is scored -- too many "10's". Or, perhaps, Larissa Semyonovna, who won 4 gold medals in the 1956 Melbourne Olympiad in gymnastics and was the first female athlete to win nine Olympic gold medals. (Information and some phrases stolen from a top 20 list.) We have track and field candidates (Jesse Owens/Carl Lewis) or Al Oerter (excellence over multiple Olympics -- 4 straight discus wins, each with a world record) It seems that gymnastics, track and field, and swimming will provide the only serious candidates.
At this point we must, I think, ask the question whether sports that allow for multiple wins in a single Olympics, thanks in part to the existence of relays (swimming and track) and team medals (gymnastics) shouldn't be devalued in some way. In fact, though I think none of the great swimmers ever won such a medal one can get a medal in a swimming or track relay race even though one does not race in the finals. If one participates in the preliminary heats that is enough. In my opinion, no relay medals should count and medals from events that are fundamentally different in nature should be upwards valued. Though speed in the run up to the board in the long jump (formally broad jump) is crucial, it does require additional skills. By the same token each of the different swimming strokes requires different skills.
In my opinion, the clear winner of the "greatest Olympian ever" contest should be the Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen. She won golds "in the long jump, the high jump, and sprint and hurdling events," according to Wikipedia. There is no question that these four events require quite different skills. On second thought, perhaps it should be Comeneci for she not only revolutionized scoring thanks to her perfect performances, the different skills in gymnastics are clearly ver different. But, if we are to go in that direction the winner should, perhaps, be some male gymnast since the men do more events than the women. By now, you should be convinced that our exercise is a very, very silly one. Sadly, humans generally cannot think well enough to see how silly it is. And, even more sadly, we are going to let such people chose the President of the United States.