London 2012: An alternative greatest Olympian of all time
You will know that the London Olympics is in full swing because the media is full of stories asking whether Michael Phelps, who has just added a few more medals to his tally bringing it to 19 of which 15 are gold, is the greatest Olympian of all time. The Baltimore-born athlete is certainly the most decorated in history, but many commentators are very reluctant to bestow the ultimate accolade on the boy who started his swimming career because his mother found that it was a good way to deal with his hyperactivity.
The truth is that there are just too many other plausible candidates for the title of greatest Olympian in the modern era. In today’s Independent, the newspapers’ sports writers offer their own favourite choice – so take your pick from a list which includes Phelps, but also gymnast Olga Korbut, and athletes Emil Zatopek, Jesse Owens and Fanny Blankers-Coen.
Of course, part of the appeal of the question who is greatest Olympian of all time is that there is no definitive answer. It is the kind of puzzle, as the great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss would undoubtedly have pointed out, that makes us think, and brings us into contact with the extraordinary human capacity for reasoning.
On the other hand, I remember listening to Steve Ovett, 800 m Olympic gold medallist in 1980, at the last Olympics held in Beijing putting forward a very strong case that running is probably the most egalitarian of all sports. You don’t need much in the way of equipment – no boats, no swimming pool, no diving board, no pommel horse, no real horse — just raw physical talent and emotional drive, as well as a considerable amount of application and training.
On this basis, then, why don’t we redefine the question and ask on the eve of the opening of the athletics: who will be the greatest runner at the London Games? My guess is that most people would vote for Usain Bolt, who is not only the fastest man in history and a three-time Olympic gold medallist, but also the man who has redefined starting etiquette before the 100 and 200 m races.
Before Bolt came on the scene it was all very macho strutting – think of the seriousness with which athletes like Maurice Greene, Donovan Bailey and Ben Johnson used to prowl about before they got into their starting blocks. Now it’s all about street style – hand movements, and quick smiles and frowns – performed in an ironic way. Whatever else he might go on to achieve, Bolt should be given a special award for injecting a bit of humour into the proceedings. Of course, whether he beats his Jamaican compatriot Johan Blake in Sunday night’s 100 m final is another question.
But although sprinting takes pride of place for many spectators, I think that the real deal is to be found in the middle distance racing. Why? Well, two reasons. Firstly, because it’s not all over in a flash. Secondly, because distance races involve not only speed but intellect as well – you have to position yourself, think through tactics both before and during the race, and then run like hell over the final lap.
Tomorrow night starting at 9:25 PM will see two of East Africa’s finest female athletes, Ethiopia’s double Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenya’s Commonwealth champion Vivian Cheruiyot, battling it out over 10,000 m. Who will win? It’s difficult to say. Both have blistering finishes, but if it wasn’t the fact that she was coming back from injury Dibaba, nicknamed the Baby- Faced destroyer, would surely be favourite. However, the bookies have installed Cheruiyot as the likely winner, with Dibaba coming second.
Nevertheless, in deciding between the two women, I am much influenced by a comment made by Michael Johnson, another Olympic champion turned BBC commentator, who on witnessing Dibaba’s electric finish over the last 400 m at the end of 10,000 m in Beijing said that she could easily succeed as a 400 m runner — a race he knows quite a lot about as he still holds the world and Olympic records.
Anyone who has the ability to run both 400 m and 10,000 m, while floating over the ground and making it look effortless, must surely be included in the list of the greatest Olympians of all time.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of RoehamptonTagged in: olympics, Tirunesh Dibaba, Usain Bolt
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