August 28, 2008

Is Phelps Phony?

My purview as Minister of Common Sense extends to many corners of society, including sports. I watched the Olympics with great interest, especially as Michael Phelps pursued his historical, record-setting eight gold medals. However, I got to thinking... and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe all the hype surrounding his achievements are overblown.

Phelps is being lauded as either the “greatest Olympian ever” or the “greatest athlete ever” (depending on who you talk to, and some people think he is both). These titles are being bestowed on Phelps because of the amazing number of gold medals he won in Beijing. But, did he really win “eight” gold medals or just “one”?

I mean, it’s swimming. He’s a great swimmer. I get that. But do we really need all those different swimming events and strokes? At its most basic, a swimming race is two people in a body of water trying to go from point A to point B in the least amount of time. Who cares how you get there? Why do we need the freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly? It’s like losing a foot race to someone and then saying, “OK, let’s race again... but this time we have to run sideways!” The dude is faster than you, and he just proved it, so who cares if you are a faster sideways runner than him? If you both had to race to the last lifejacket on the Titanic, guess what?... you’re not going to get it. We don’t have sideways running, so why do we have the butterfly?

If someone is a fast runner, I’m willing to bet he’s also a pretty fast sideways runner, too. Just as Phelps is a fast freestyle swimmer, he’s also pretty good at all the other hokey swim strokes. Given all the different swimming strokes, distances and relays, there were 17 opportunities to win a gold medal as a male swimmer in Beijing. That is almost as much as track & field (24), and track & field has everything from walking to the long jump to the javelin to the pole vault. That is a hell of a lot more varied than just swimming. So with 17 gold medals available in swimming, if you insert a great swimmer like Michael Phelps into that opportunity, of course he’s going to walk away with a shitload of them. So why is that so amazing?

One way to look at it is that Phelps basically won 5 gold medals for the same thing – being a fast swimmer. (He won three more gold medals for being a fast swimmer who also had other fast swimmers in the same country, which is even less impressive.) I could shatter Phelps’ gold medal record tomorrow... if you made common sense an Olympic sport and had events such as: common sense on Monday morning; common sense on Monday afternoon; common sense on Tuesday morning; common sense on Tuesday afternoon; etc. By the end of the week, I’d have 14 gold medals around my neck. Does that make me the best Olympian or athlete of all time? No, it just makes me a guy with a lot of common sense, right? So why is Phelps suddenly the best athlete ever?

I say that Phelps isn’t the best athlete ever. You could also say he’s also not the best Olympian ever because there are too many events (i.e. gold medal opportunities) in swimming, plus Larissa Latynina has the most career medals ever with 18 (bet you didn't know that). You know what you CAN say?... you can say he’s the best swimmer ever, which is pretty damn good.

This isn’t Phelps’ fault, of course, and I’m not suggesting that we push the button on him or anything. It’s the fault of the Ministry of Olympics for having too many swimming events. They don’t give one gold medal for ping pong with a red paddle and then another gold medal for ping pong with a blue paddle, so why do we have all the different retarded swimming strokes? I recommend that all swimming events at the Olympics should just come down to one race – “the fastest motherfucker to the other side of the pool”. OK, I’ll grant them swimming races at different distances, too, just to mix things up. I’m on my way to the Olympic Minister’s office right now.


  1. My friend and I were talking about this the other day, and I have to kind of agree. But, I have a co-worker who swam seriously in college, and he says there is a difference. Michael Phelps is definitely great, but how great?

  2. I agree with your point to some extent - that there are a bit too many medals to be won for being good at essentially the same thing - but, like you mentioned, it's a bit like track and field. If there is 50m race and 100m race and 200m race and so on and so forth in running, it should be the same in swimming as well, since the two sports are both about "which motherfucker got to the other side of the mark first": just one on ground and one in water.
    With the variation of strokes... Well, I find freestyle very easy but breastroke impossible. Perhaps different strokes should all have their awards since being good at one stroke doesn't always make a person good at all other strokes as well.