Since the Olympic Games began about a week ago, I, like nearly every other world citizen with a television, radio, or internet connection, have been following the aquatic pursuits of Michael Phelps. Phelps, in case you didn’t know, is on the precipice of heretofore unrealized Olympic greatness. Having already won more career gold medals than any other competitor in history, he is only three events away from breaking Mark Spitz’s mark of seven golds in a single Games. Along the way he has dominated nearly every event, setting world records in each and running away with all but one – a relay in which he was only one-fourth of the team. If Michael Jordan married a dolphin and the pair had a child with a slight underbite, that dolpho-Jordan would be Michael Phelps.
Yet despite MP's greatness, his medal count affords him acclaim disproportionate to his actual accomplishments. Sure, he wins a crap-load of gold medals, but is it really that impressive that he does a bunch of arbitrary variations of the same thing? Breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, dog paddle, splashy-splashy…isn’t that just ‘swimming?’ What reason is there for him to earn a different gold for each one? Each stroke may utilize a unique skill set, but that doesn’t mean it deserves its own event. They wouldn’t give Tyson Gay another gold for running 100m with one arm tied behind his back, a third if he skipped every other step, or a fourth if he ran with a pirate patch over his right eye, so why do swimmers get a veritable medal buffet for doing more or less the same thing?
When the Olympics started in 776 BC, there were probably only a few events – wrasslin’ in oil, pissing off Zeus, epic poetry, etc. As the Games progressed, they probably added additional distances and disciplines in descending order of significance just to flesh out the schedule. But at what point did they start piling on really slight permutations of the same events?
But can he piss off Zeus?
I always thought the beauty of the games was the opportunity to see the superlative competitors in action. Who’s the fastest? Who jumps the highest? Can someone unseat Homer at writing poems that never end? These are challenges with practical applications in real life. If you’re running away from a bear, you better sprint like the wind. If you’re swimming away from a shark, you need to make it rain freestyle. Any other stroke would end in tears.
Time for backstroke?
Sure, Michael Phelps is awesome. If he was a physician, he’d make Paul Farmer look like Dr. Nick. And yes, swimming isn’t the only offender – several other sports have way too many medals for what are essentially meaningless variations of the same basic challenge. Yet swimming is the biggest offender, making Phelps the most obvious medal baron. He may be the greatest swimmer ever – or at least the best without a kick-ass mustache – but until he oil wrassles like a champ, I will remain only moderately impressed.