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Harvey: Greatest Olympian debate extends beyond Phelps, Lewis

Randy Harve, Houston Chronicle
Updated 11:40 pm, Thursday, August 9, 2012

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  • Michael Phelps' fingers tell the tale Thursday, when he earned his third straight Olympic victory in the men's 200 individual medley. For his Olympic career, he's up to 20 total medals and 16 golds. Photo: Smiley N. Pool / © 2012  Houston Chronicle

    Michael Phelps' fingers tell the tale Thursday, when he earned his third straight Olympic victory in the men's 200 individual medley. For his Olympic career, he's up to 20 total medals and 16 golds.

    Photo: Smiley N. Pool

 

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We moved to Baltimore in 2004, a couple of months before a local star named Michael Phelps entered into the international consciousness by winning six gold medals in Athens.

Virtually everyone we knew during the two years we lived there belonged to a swim club. That wasn't inspired by Phelps. It's what people had always done there during the summers.

So we joined one. It wasn't the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, the Yankee Stadium of local swim clubs, where Phelps was a member. Ours was on the south side. It wasn't as exclusive as some, but it was surrounded by a fence, and a pass was required to enter.

Outside the fence was a predominantly African-American neighborhood. I could only guess what the children from that neighborhood were thinking as they cooled off in the sweltering heat with water hoses while predominantly white children were swimming in an Olympic-sized pool.

Anyone who ever watched "The Wire" knows Baltimore, like most cities, has racial tensions. I never got the impression our fellow club members were racist. The issue was economic. Some could afford to join the club, and some couldn't.

I bring this up because of a provocative column this week by Tim Sullivan in the Louisville Courier-Journal discussing whether Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time. Sullivan questioned Phelps' legitimacy as the G.O.A.T. because virtually all of his opponents his entire life had virtually the same pigmentation as he does.

He called Phelps and competitors "members of the chlorinated upper middle class."

Phelps' family, like many others involved in swimming, isn't upper middle class. That, however, doesn't detract from Sullivan's observation. If you agree with him - and there's no judge here to deduct points if you don't, because Phelps has the medals to back you up - then who is the greatest Summer Olympian ever?

Boycott hurt Lewis

Carl Lewis? He duplicated Jesse Owens' achievements by winning gold medals in the 100 meters, the 200, the long jump and the 400 relay in 1984, then went on to win the 100 once more and the long jump three more times. He might have won more medals if not for the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games that prevented him from competing in five Olympics.

But what if professionals had been allowed into the Olympics while Owens was still competing and he continued beyond 1936 instead of returning from Berlin to run exhibitions against horses because he needed the money?

Would Mark Spitz have continued to be as dominant as he was when he won seven gold medals in Munich if he hadn't had to come home to embark upon a show business career? He was a mere 22 when he retired.

If the decathlon identifies the world's greatest male athlete, the heptathlon winner should be known as the world's greatest female athlete. Would Jackie Joyner-Kersee have won the heptathlon more than twice if she weren't such a relentless competitor that she also insisted on becoming the world's best woman long jumper?

What's the criterion for determining the G.O.A.T.?

Sportsmanship? Germany's Luz Long was a long jumper counted on to prove Hitler's theory of Aryan superiority by beating Owens. Instead, after Owens was in jeopardy of disqualification because of fouls, Luz gave him advice that enabled Owens to win.

Grace under pressure? Kerri Strug vaulted with a sprained ankle she could barely walk on and clinched gold for the U.S. women's gymnastics team title in 1996.

Changing the world? Gymnast Olga Korbut didn't win so many medals, but she helped defrost the Cold War with her smile during the 1972 Games. Soviet teenagers smiled? Who knew?

Ronald Reagan changed not only the world but the Olympic world with his 1987 challenge from Berlin's Brandenberg Gate, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.'' The wall eventually came down, enabling investigators to obtain Stasi files providing evidence of the extent of East German doping. You won't find East Germans on this list.

Courage? Many didn't approve, but Tommie Smith and John Carlos were more effective in making their point in 1968 with their upraised fists than the African-American athletes who boycotted.

Courageous acts

How about Anita DeFrantz, a gold-medalist rower in 1976 who was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the U.S. Olympic Committee after it succumbed to pressure from the government to boycott in 1980? You won't find Jimmy Carter on this list.

Perseverance? Gabriela Andersen Scheiss refused to quit while staggering around the L.A. Coliseum track at the end of the first women's Olympic marathon in 1984. She knew if she didn't finish that officials who didn't believe women should be allowed to run 26.2 miles would prevail.

Does anyone else put Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner, in this category?

I could go on. Emil Zatopek of the former Czech Republic won the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon in 1952. Paavo Nurmi, one of the Flying Finns, won nine gold medals as a distance runner from 1920-28 and inspired one of the fictional dental patients ("Is it safe?'') to run in William Goldman's "Marathon Man.''

Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina won a record 14 individual medals, one more than Phelps. How about that guy from "Chariots of Fire,'' who was so devout he wouldn't run on a Sunday? Or did Mr. Bean ruin that moment for you during London's Opening Ceremony?

Who have I left out? You tell me, by mail, e-mail or Twitter.

The only penalty is, as with some badminton players, for not trying.

 

randy.harvey@chron.com