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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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August 15, 2008 9:33 AM

On Phelps, Eric Heiden, and Olympic history

Posted by Ron Judd


Big response in the inbox this morning to today's newspaper column on Michael Phelps and his place in history. Most people say they appreciate the reminder of other great Olympians, and some have offered up suggestions of their own, which I'll post in a followup later. Thanks to all of you who have written.

(Thanks also to a few of you who pointed out a sentence that's not entirely clear in the column: When I noted that Carl Lewis won an "unprecedented" golds in a single event, the long jump, I meant that it was unprecedented in the long jump. Others, such as Al Oerter in the discuss, have won four straight in other pursuits.)

There were a few of the expected knee-jerk, how-dare-you-diminish-swimming responses: The usual "obviously you're not a swimmer" retorts from swimmers. One reader even angrily suggests I'm "running down" swimming out of abject ignorance, by diminishing the difficulty of mastering multiple strokes, or suggesting that the sport is "easy on the body."

Au contraire. As an Olympics writer, I've been chronicling, and praising, the incredible athleticism of elite swimmers for a long time. I don't recall ever writing, in my lifetime, that mastering multiple swim strokes was easy. I did say it was a more "natural" transition that switching between completely unrelated events, and it is. Some people will take that as an insult to swimmers. But some people take anything that's not gratuitous praise of their favorite hobby as an insult, so what can you do.

As I said in the column, I wrote it not to diminish, even in the slightest, what Phelps is accomplishing in Beijing. It's phenomenal, and, I believe, one of the most ingeniously choreographed -- by Phelps himself, and coach Bob Bowman -- athletic achievements ever at the Olympics. There's no denying it's one of the greatest single performances ever, at any Games. He has already established himself as the greatest swimmer of all time. And he obviously leads in the gold medal count.

But you can argue -- and most Olympic historians agree with this -- that when it comes to the "greatest Olympian" title, longevity should be a major factor, as should diversity of athleticism. That's what led me to point out some Olympians from the past who have dominated the way Phelps is dominating now, but over a longer period of time, and in more-diverse events.

My comparison of Phelps' single-Games performances versus others, such as Eric Heiden's sweep of the 1980 speedskating events at Lake Placid was a second argument, meant to illicit some creative debate, and it seems to have done just that. My wife, Emjay, who is also an Olympics nut, and I had the same argument last night that I filed the column.

Assuming Phelps wins his last individual event, both athletes will have won five individual -- as in, non-relay -- golds in a single Games. Phelps will be the first person to do that since Heiden. (Note: Mark Spitz won four individual medals, three relays.)

The differences:

Heiden performed at a much broader variety of distances: from 500 meters to 10,000. As I wrote, that's like winning the 100 meters, the 10K -- and everything in between -- in track, which is astonishing. Phelps' swimming distances vary from 100 to 400 meters, but he must swim four different strokes to get where he's going. Also amazing.

Does greater variety in distance trump varied technique that utilizes completely different muscle groups? I gave the edge to Heiden; Emjay was leaning more to Phelps.

There's no right answer. These things are, as I wrote, absolutely apples and oranges comparisons. But it's a fun argument, and it sheds some light on Olympic history, which in my book is always a good thing.

I guess I had Heiden on the brain because I just finished researching a book about the Winter Games, and it includes a lot of detailed, great-moments history. I watched Heiden's exploits on TV as a high-school punk, but had forgotten the unprecedented nature of what he had done until talking to people who saw it live.

An aside: Most people forget, or don't know, that Heiden, who by current standards was sort of laid back about all this, almost spoiled his own perfection by oversleeping and nearly missing his final race.

He had been out late the night before, reveling, with everyone else, in the Miracle on Ice U.S. hockey victory over the Soviet Union. He barely had time to do a warmup.

Unlike Phelps (and most other current athletes) Heiden hit the spotlight and then quickly ran out of it. He left the sport soon after the '80 Games, and turned down countless sponsorship opportunities to stay out of the limelight. He became an elite cyclist (ending when he suffered a concussion in the 1986 Tour de France), then a physician, and he now works as an orthopedic surgeon. Heiden has been the team doc for U.S. speedskating at the last couple Olympics. He sewed up Apolo Ohno's leg after a gash suffered in a fall in Salt Lake City.

With that, I open the floor to discussion on the above, and ask another question: Aside from the obvious (Spitz) are there other single-Olympic-Games performances that rank with these two? I can think of a couple contenders.

Comments | Category: Beijing 2008 Games , Olympic History , Olympic Medals , Olympic Records , Olympic Trivia , Past Olympians , Track and Field , World Records |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

April 27, 2008 11:30 AM

Olympic athletes: Political opinions welcome -- sort of

Posted by Ron Judd

The International Olympic Committee's Athlete's Commission met in Switzerland recently to ponder what to do about growing unrest -- some of it in the athlete's own ranks -- about the choice of China as an Olympics host. Read their conclusions here.

It's a thorny issue, and the athletes reaffirmed their colleagues rights to express opinions. But they also subtly reminded them that they have every right to remain silent. And they dropped in their own reference, just in case anyone forgot, to the IOC's "Rule 51," which says "propaganda or demonstrations" on political issues should be stifled during the Games, or at any official Olympic competition or function. (IOC President Jacques Rogge's recent interpretation of that rule with regard to Beijing can be found here.)

You can argue this issue either way. But we expect -- and frankly sort of hope -- that not every athlete will feel squashed by Rule 51's constraints. In the rule's 50-year history, it has often been ignored. Political expressions have been made on Olympic soil as sacred as the medal stand -- see Tommy Smith and John Carlos, Mexico City, 1968, for just one example -- and the Games have managed to keep from collapsing on themselves. The IOC should be wary about waving the rule around any more than it already has.

In fact, those who argue that Olympism should maintain a wall between competition and politics are ignoring the role of politics in the Games through history. Just one example: At the 1948 St. Moritz Winter Games -- the first to take place after World War II canceled the 1940 Olympics that were to be held in, of all places, Sapporo, Japan -- athletes from Japan and Germany were flat-out barred from competition. How's that for a separation of politics and sport? We could go on, but plenty of other examples of nation state activity and Olympic repercussions can be found through a cursory scan of the history books.

Perhaps IOC execs in Lausanne bemoaning the mixing of Olympic medals and international malaise need to sit for a spell and consider their own part in this drama: They can't cower forever behind the shroud of assertions that "Beijing submitted the best bid!" Because everyone knows the awarding of the Games to China in 2001 was, ipso facto, a political statement by the Olympic movement. Squinting through the resulting blowback and expecting athletes to honor that choice, and refrain from responding to it, is both naive and hypocritical.

Comments | Category: Beijing 2008 Games , International Olympic Committee , Olympic History , Olympic politics |Permalink | Digg Digg | Newsvine Newsvine

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Blogroll and links

www.olympic.org: The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information.
www.nbcolympics.com: Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog
www.usolympicteam.com: U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site.
www.aroundtherings.com: Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription).
www.wcsn.com: News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions.
www.beijing2008.com: Beijing Organizing Committee Web site.
www.vancouver2010.com: Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site.
www.london2012.com: London 2012 Summer Games site.
www.sochi2014.com: Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site.
www.chicago2016.org: Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.