Wednesday, August 13, 2008

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.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

Personally, I am boycotting the Olympics, which means I'm not watching it on television, so I have no clue as to who is the greatest Olympian. Easy for me because I don't own a television.

But, comparing our discernment of who should be the greatest Olympian to who should be the greatest President?

The problem is NOT that human beings aren't capable of thinking well enough, it's the methods they are using. Or perhaps, the methods politics & religion forces us to use. Trying to decide who should have the all important job of President of the United States of America with the tools at hand, i.e. American television of all things, what do you expect? Why should we read books or get involved when we can sit on our asses & eat chips & watch television?

8:37 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I recall not watching the Olympics during the time I was at MIT and Illinois until my to be wife showed up with a tiny one. I think it didn't ruin my life either not to watch or watch. One virtue of not having a TV is one cannot watch McCain commericals.

1:04 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I didn't grow up with television. My husband did though. I always had issues with it. I particularly hated having one in the living room like a shrine or an altar in the corner. I always thought that was tacky. I would fight to get the cable turned off during the summer so the kids would have to find other things to do. I didn't fight a very good battle though. By the time my husband & I got divorced after 20 some years, there were 5 TVs in our house. I left them all behind.
I sure as heck don't miss the news or the political advertisements!
I feel the American people let themselves get discouraged by all the negativity & shallowness that surrounds politics. I hate how TV markets it to us like a product. I believe this makes us cynical.
One of the reasons I am running for City Councilor is that I want to know what politics feels like from the point of view of the politician. This is necessary for me, so I can have a well rounded view of political considerations.

6:46 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Good for you. I suspect you will enjoy politics. That is if you like blood sports. :-)

9:48 AM

Blogger tim maguire said...

I couldn't agree more. Before you can pick a greatest Olympian, you must define greatest. And a simple medal count seems like a cheap way to do it. Particularly when some categories of sport have so many similar events and someone can participate in all of them. I think that some special mention should be given to the decatheletes--who have to do 10 distinct things very well. And not just winning, but sheer dominance should be considered (ala Mark Spitz or Nadia Comenici, and not so much Michael Phelps' 100th of a second victory even if it was his 7th gold).

1:31 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

That is if you like blood sports.:-)
Well, I have been preparing myself by reading Machiavelli's "The Prince" & listening to a 24 lecture course on "Machiavelli in Context" If that's not blood sports, I don't know what is.

I believe local politics is the best place for the average citizen to get involved & put their own theories to the test.

My biggest hesitation in all of this is that it will alienate me from my peers. IMO, being on the outside is always just speculation. I'm very keen on including all the citizens in the process.
I don't know if that makes sense to you, but to put it another way, I want to be the bridge that links the citizen to politics & puts the power in their hands.

2:45 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Progressive people have known for decades (if not centuries) that war leads to riches for the war-makers, whereas peace leads to prosperity for many, many more. And Progressive people have also known for years (if not decades) that being good to the environment is ultimately being good to their children’s bank accounts.Unfortunately, Progressive People are still very much in the minority these days, and don’t have a whole lot of support in the form of corporate
sponsorship, much less from their political representative who was long ago placed in the pocket of Big Auto, Big Oil and/or Big War.

11:54 PM


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