Friday, July 27, 2012

Only an American journalist could ask such an extraordinary question

COMING from the nation that crowns its baseball and football premiers "world champions", it probably should come as no surprise that the US is viewing the clash in the pool of American teammates Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte as determining the greatest swimmer in history.
-The Australian 

Lochte, to his credit, didn't immediately bite. He's cool. He knows not to get ahead of himself. He has three Olympic gold medals _ two fewer than Ian Thorpe, just as a matter of interest, one fewer than Dawn Fraser but, hey, who's counting? _ and Phelps has 14.It seemed utterly extraordinary that anyone could possibly pose him that question. Lochte could win six golds and Phelps none _ which can't happen because they would be relay teammates for a couple of them _ and still Phelps would reign supreme, the single-most ruthless swimming machine the world has seen. But Lochte treated it as a legitimate hypothesis.
"You know what, that's your guys' call," Lochte said, gazing down at the press scrum at his feet. "I don't know how you really decide who is the greatest swimmer of all time. I mean a lot of people say Mark Spitz is or Matt Biondi. These names come up. So it's kind of hard to decide who is the world's best swimmer. There are so many different areas. Me and Michael, we swim so many different events but we're not the fastest 50m freestyle or 100m freestyler. So it's hard to decide." It can't even be said that by the end of these Games one of them will have established himself as the fastest swimmer in the world. That distinction will go to the man who wins the 50m freestyle, an event neither of them is even contesting and for a very good reason _ it's not their forte.


And that's what made the question so insulting. The two Americans might be the best all-rounders in the world because the IM races test all four strokes but neither of them will dip his toe into a race against the best breaststrokers or backstrokers.Spitz and Biondi, both American, were extraordinarily brilliant. Spitz won nine golds in his career but five were in relay events. Similarly, Biondi won eight golds, but half were in relays.


Biondi was hailed as the greatest sprinter of his generation but in his three Olympics, Los Angeles, Seoul and Barcelona, he won the 100m freestyle only once. And let's not forget that when Biondi was at his peak in 1988, he was beaten by Australia's Duncan Armstrong in the 200m freestyle final and by Anthony Nesty of Surinam in the 100m butterfly.Fraser, by contrast, utterly dominated the 100m freestyle, becoming the first swimmer in history to win the same Olympic event three times, in 1956, 1960 and 1964. And she would have been right in the mix to win it again in Mexico in 1968 had she not been banned for souveniring a flag.


But on history's page, even Fraser must bow to Phelps. And not only her but Thorpe and Russia'a Alex Popov and Kristina Egerzeki, the Hungarian backstroker. Even Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, who won five golds and a bronze in water polo, couldn't swing it to be called The Greatest.Lochte and his adoring press corps might do well to maintain perspective.

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