So I was huffing along on the treadmill today, watching CNN because you can only watch so much of the Olympics. And what were they talking about on CNN but — you guessed it — the Olympics.
Turns out folks are once again calling Michael Phelps the “greatest athlete of all time.” This time, however, unlike four years ago, some people are saying, “Hold on a minute.” One such person is Sebastian Coe, an athlete, English politician and head of the London Olympics.
Specifically, Lord Coe said to reporters, as detailed in the San Francisco Chronicle: “You can probably say that clearly, self-evidently, in medal tally he’s the most successful. My personal view is I am not sure he is the greatest, but he is certainly the most successful. That goes without saying.”
Bravo, Lord Coe, I thought to myself on the treadmill. Thanks for so articulately stating what I’ve been saying for years.
Four years ago, Michael Phelps was pronounced the greatest Olympian of all time. And I wrote the following piece. My sentiments haven’t changed since 2008:
The Olympic hype totally turns me off. I haven’t heard that much hyperbole since, oh, I don’t know…last year’s college football season.
The worst was calling Michael Phelps “the greatest athlete of all time.”
Whoa. Really? All time? Better than Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Eric Hayden, the Ancient Greeks?
Don’t get me wrong. The guy swims like a dolphin. Watching him mesmerizes even an Olympic cynic like me. His humble beginnings inspire us. He is a phenomenal athlete, and he seems like a nice guy.
But can we have a little perspective here? The greatest ever? That’s just over the top.
What makes Phelps better than Usain Bolt, another hyperbolic medalist they’re calling the “fastest man in the world?” Or Nastia Liukin, the gymnast who grabbed five medals at the Beijing games? Or how about Constantina Tomescu-Dita, the 38-year-old Romanian woman who won the women’s marathon in Beijing? Who’s the better athlete? Who can really judge that contest?
And do we really care? They’re all unbelievably good at their sports. Let’s just say it. Why does there have to be one “greatest?”
I’m not knocking Michael Phelps, OK, so don’t start flaming me and calling me un-American. He’s awesome, all right? But this sort of overstatement drives me batty.
Even my daughter noticed it. Why, she implored me, are they saying Michael Phelps is the greatest ever?
I didn’t have an answer for her.
But I did tell her that just about anyone who makes it to the Olympics is the best. That’s what the games are all about. And you’re not the greatest ever just because you win the most medals. I think there’s more to it than that.
Let’s just talk for a minute about Jesse Owens, one of my favorite past Olympians.
The guy was the grandson of slaves. His father was a sharecropper. He wasn’t pegged for his running speed until high school. He had to work after school to help support his family, so he went to school early to practice with his coach. He only attended Ohio State University after his father found a job that could support the family.
So Owens was a track star at Ohio State, but he had to live off campus because he was black. He never received a scholarship from the university, despite winning eight NCAA individual championships, a record that stood until 2006. He worked part-time to support himself. And when the track team traveled, Owens and the other black athletes had to eat carry-out or in blacks-only restaurants.
Then in 1936, he traveled to Berlin to compete for the United States in the Olympics. There, he figuratively spit in the eye of Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi party propaganda touted Aryan superiority and claimed ethnic Africans were inferior. At “Hitler’s Olympics” Owens won four gold medals, a feat not repeated until Carl Lewis won four medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Talk about the greatest. Owens was one of them.
So, in my opinion, is Lopez Lomong. I don’t even know if he won a medal in track and field at the Beijing Olympics, but it doesn’t really matter. The fact that he was there, representing the United States, boggles the mind.
As a 6-year-old in Sudan, Lomong was abducted from his family and held in a militia camp, destined to become a child soldier. He escaped with some other boys and walked and ran for three days until they reached Kenya. There, he lived in a refugee camp, surviving for 10 years on one meal a day. To keep himself from thinking about how hungry he was, he ran and played soccer.
Eventually, he ended up in the United States, one of the Lost Boys, and a high school coach saw potential. He reportedly never lost a race, and he always ran with a smile on his face.
Lopez Lomong was a winner to begin with. Making it to the Olympics was just the icing, regardless of whether he won anything there. My kids are captivated by Lomong’s story. And they’ve never asked if he won any medals.
Is Lopez Lomong less of an athlete than Michael Phelps? I don’t think so.
See, I don’t think winning medals is the lesson of the Olympics. Which makes the whole “silver-is-just-another-word-for-first-loser” sentiment I heard bandied about so abhorrent. You’re not a failure if you don’t get the gold medal. No one who makes it to the Olympics is a failure.
I’m not encouraging mediocrity or everyone’s-a-winner kind of thinking. I’m just saying that doing the best you can do is worth celebrating, too. It’s not just about getting the gold.
That’s the lesson I want the Olympics to hold for my kids.