Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Measuring athletic greatness

As Michael Phelps pulled away from the field in the 200 IM to win his thirteenth individual Olympic Gold Medal, he set the standard by which athletic greatness will be measured. The greatest athletes are not just good at one thing—the measurement of true greatness, established from antiquity to the present, is the ability to dominate different events, and the ability to do so more than once.

The medley is a classic example of an event designed that tests skill across different styles, the sort of thing fans want to see, it’s a way of settling disputes about whether a competitor who is good at one aspect of a sport is better than one who dominates at another. Fans have been asking those questions and wanting events that demand contrasting skills for as long as they have been watching competitive sport.

The classics example of a “combined skills” events is the ancient Greek sport of pankration, easily the nastiest of all events in the ancient Olympics.

BEIJING - AUGUST 17: Michael Phelps of the United States leaves the pool after competing in the Men's 4x100 Medley Relay held at the National Aquatics Centre during Day 9 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 17, 2008 in Beijing, China. The United States team set a new world record with a time of 3:29:34. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
“Michael Phelps” by Marco Paköeningrat. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Pankration combined boxing and wrestling. Brutal and dangerous, one Olympic champion actually died in the final match. He won because he was inflicting so much pain on his opponent that the opponent surrendered just before the stranglehold he was using killed the “victor.” The more successful champions managed to survive, but only the greatest, and this is evocative of Phelps’ accomplishment, could win in either boxing or wrestling in the same Olympics as their pankration victory.

Since all boxing, wrestling and pankration competition was held on the same day, an athlete would go straight, just like Phelps did when he swam the semi of the 200 Meter Butterfly less than an hour after dominating the 200 IM final (no surprise that he won today’s final when he had some rest). It’s that sort of versatility combined with endurance that Greeks recognized as the sign of absolute greatness. People who could win the pankration final after winning another event the same day were compared with the god Herakles, the patron of violent sport. There were only five people who could claim this in the course of about a thousand years of ancient athletic history.

Phelps has shown multiple skills and endurance. The third quality of greatness is longevity. The man whose record Phelps eclipsed last night was Leonidas of Rhodes, who won twelve individual Olympic crowns across four Olympiads. Like Phelps he also won in different kinds of races—the equivalent of the one and two hundred meter sprints and a race in armor, which combined aspects of a demolition derby with an endurance contest. He was one of only seven men known to have won all three in the same games, and he was the only person to do it more than once. The one man to have a longer career of Olympic success was a wrestler, Milo of Croton, who won six straight Olympic crowns from 540 to 516 BC. He lost in the finals in his seventh Olympics to a wrestler from his own city—a man he must have trained with.

A final quality is the ability to dominate the competition. As Michael Phelps swam away from the field last night you had to wonder whether there will ever be another swimmer who will have his ability to take over a race. That too was recognized as a measure of greatness. Milo was so dominant that people would simply concede rather than be crushed by him.

However we measure greatness in athletes who compete at the highest level, whether through their ability to dominate their events, their versatility, their endurance, or their longevity, Michael Phelps now stands at the top of the list.

Featured image credit: “Olympic Flame” by GoToVan. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Noel Hamer

    There are too many swimming events. It is a bloated sport. (It reeks of lobbying and politics.) If someone regularly wins more than one event, that is evidence that the events are too close. Why not have shooting over 50m, 100m, 200m, 500m, shooting backwards, shooting lying – prone and supine? A medley of shooting events? There should be three freestyle swimming events at most – sprint, medium, long distance.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *