BBC BLOGS - Mihir Bose
« Previous | Main | Next »

Comparing Olympic greats

Post categories:

Mihir Bose | 14:47 UK time, Wednesday, 13 August 2008

What makes a champion? And can a champion only be measured by the number of golds he or she wins?

Michael Phelps's victory in the pool on Wednesday reignited the debate about who is the greatest Olympian of them all.

And in doing so reminded us about what makes good champions into greats and then into true legends.

I do not want to take anything away from Phelps' amazing achievements, and there is clearly more to come before he is done with the pool in Beijing.

But however many medals he wins, I for one do not think it fair to compare his achievements with icons Jesse Owens or Paavo Nurmi, or even more recent stars like Carl Lewis and Steve Redgrave.

The fact is swimming provides opportunities to the gifted swimmer to win more golds than most other athletes in their chosen sports.

Of course an athlete has to be gifted and exceptional to make the most of those opportunities, as Mark Spitz was in Munich in 1972, and as Phelps is in the modern era.

But for me, greatness must be judged not by the medal haul but by the conditions the athletes battles both in his own sport and in the wider world.

And taking all that into account, I still rate Jesse Owens as the greatest Olympian of all time.

Jesse Owens

To come through against the backdrop of brutality and discrimination both in his own country and at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, and then win four golds in four entirely different disciplines, marks him out as a champion without a peer.

In that way, he also comes close to being a sportsman who transcends sport - and not many sportsmen or women do that.

In my opinion, those who have are Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest 20th century athlete, Pele - who for many has defined Brazil - and Donald Bradman. Even Australians who know nothing about cricket know all about the Don. In years to come we may speak of Tiger Woods as being in that category.

As for Phelps, his great achievements will surely bring great financial reward as well as sporting acclaim. This is the most high-profile Olympics ever, held in a country which is most highly desired by the world's marketeers.

Indeed, within hours of his latest triumph, the chief executive of Adidas was telling me how much he would like to sign Phelps.

That of course is the other huge difference between champions of today and yesteryear.

Consider what happened to Owens after his feats in Berlin. Banned from amateur competition because of a dispute with the United States Olympic Association, he ended by running against a horse to make money.

Thankfully for Phelps, there are still some brave souls willing to take him on - even though at the moment, they cannot catch him.


or register to comment.

More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.