Column by Ken Cohen
I find it kind of silly that NBC continues to call Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian ever because he has won the most gold medals in history.
While Phelps’ achievements are remarkable and certainly worthy of “greatest” consideration, the fact is only a swimmer or gymnast could possibly amass that number of medals. Those are the only sports where an athlete can participate in seven or eight events in a single Olympics. Most other competitions are limited to one, two, maybe three medal opportunities.
So let’s filter out the NBC propaganda machine and recognize Phelps for what he is probably the greatest Olympic swimmer in history and the athlete who has won the most medals.
If we want to talk about greatest Olympic champions, why not go back 100 years to Jim Thorpe. In 1912, he won the gold medal in both the pentathlon and decathlon. That means he competed in the long jump, javelin throw, 200-meter dash, discus throw and 1,500 meter run in the pentathlon and the long jump, 100 meters, 100 meter hurdles, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 110 meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1,500 meter run in the decathlon. Of these 15 different events, he finished first in nine of them.
On the same day all the pentathlon events were contested, Thorpe also qualified for the high jump final and finished seventh in the long jump final.
Even more amazing, because someone had stolen his shoes just before he was due to compete, he found some discarded ones in a garbage bin and won his medals wearing them. There is a famous photo of Thorpe wearing two different shoes and extra socks because one shoe was too big.
Sadly, in 1913, Thorpe was stripped of the two gold medals because it was discovered that he received pay for playing professional baseball in the Eastern Carolina League in 1909 and 1910 reportedly $2 per game. In those days, college players regularly played professional ball for summer income, using aliases to protect their amateur status.
Thorpe did not use a different name and subsequently he had to relinquish his two gold medals for violating the Olympics rules against amateurism. In 1983, 30 years after his death, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) restored his Olympic medals ridiculously too little and too late.
How convoluted it is that true professional athletes now dominate the Olympics and are handsomely rewarded for it through endorsements and other forms of payment. Thorpe was paid a paltry fee for playing minor league ball in a sport that was not even an Olympic event and was punished for the rest of his life. The Olympics got it wrong in 1913 for calling Thorpe a professional and still gets it wrong today for now allowing professionals to compete.
As you can tell, I have issues with the Olympics. But there is a lot I enjoy. I particularly like watching sports that I don’t typically see during the year volleyball, gymnastics (despite the flawed judging), track and field, swimming, water polo and even some sports I never even heard of, like handball (not the one where you hit a ball against a wall!)
More than anything, the Olympics is definitely a positive influence on young children. I read where the viewing audience among young girls was up 50 percent from the 2008 Olympics. My 8-year-old daughter was glued to the television, whether it was the floor exercise, the 200 butterfly or field hockey. Not only was she admiring the incredible athleticism on display, but she was clearly rooting for all the U.S. athletes without me ever saying a word about any type of partisanship. Competition is the daily lifeblood of the Olympics but fostering patriotism is its lasting effect.
Ken Cohen brings 30 years of publishing experience, many covering sports and working for sports companies, His column, “Further Review” will appear every Friday.