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Sweetness And Light
2:27 am
Wed August 8, 2012

How Can You Really Measure The Greatest Olympian?

Originally published on Wed August 8, 2012 10:52 am

I always like it when Olympic champions from one sport go to another competition, so I was particularly touched to see Kobe Bryant, with his children in tow, watching as the magnificent Michael Phelps bid adieu to his sport by winning yet one last gold.

Phelps and Bryant are connected these days, too, because both have prompted some historical conversation. Kobe boasted that his current U.S. basketball squad could beat the sainted Dream Team of '92, while Phelps, simply by piling up more medals, opened up the barroom debate about who might be the greatest Olympian ever.

Now, it's hard enough comparing teams and stars from different eras in the same sport (although, I'm sorry, Kobe, but I'll take the team Michael Jordan is playing on, and the devil take the hindmost), but to try and distinguish between players in totally different sports is a fool's errand. Taking nothing away from Phelps' haul, but the record for most medals that he broke was held by a gymnast — which is another sport, like swimming, where medals are more promiscuously distributed. And before Phelps passed her did anybody ever say that Larisa Latynina was the greatest Olympian?

If not Phelps, Carl Lewis won track and field gold in four different Olympics and might have won in a fifth if Jimmy Carter hadn't made our first mistake on Afghanistan by banning our athletes from the Moscow Games.

But Phelps and Lewis competed in marquee sports. Who's to say that someone most of us never heard of — say, Britain's Steven Redgrave, who won the same event, coxless pairs for five straight Olympics — isn't the best? Or must longevity be the defining standard? Does any cumulative achievement match what the Czech Emil Zatopek did in 1952 alone when he won the 5,000-meter, the 10,000-meter and then, just because he had a free day, the marathon?

What I say is, let's stand up and give the wave to all these candidates and then, speaking of the wave, get rid of the wave.

Aren't you sick of the wave? It's been around since the 1970s, it's not fun any more, but it's mandatory to go along if some unoriginal idiot starts it up. Otherwise, you're not a good sport. Please. But, here it is again, periodically at the Olympics. Even Prince William and Kate had to join in when some dimwit started it at the tennis matches.

I was watching a Yankees game the other night when Donald Trump got caught in the wave. He grimaced and went through the motions, and you know: I felt for him. Then I thought to myself: The day you sympathize with Donald Trump is the last straw. When the Olympics end, let us vow to wave goodbye to the wave.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, when the Olympics come to an end, commentator Frank Deford hopes that a sports fan tradition ends with them.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: I always like it when Olympic champions from one sport go to another competition. So I was particularly touched to see Kobe Bryant, with his children in tow, watching as the magnificent Michael Phelps bid adieu to his sport by winning, yet, one last gold.

Phelps and Bryant are connected these days, too, because both have prompted some historical conversation. Kobe boasted that his current U.S. basketball squad could beat the sainted Dream Team of '92, while Phelps, simply by piling up more medals, opened up the barroom debate about who might be the greatest Olympian ever.

Now it's hard enough comparing teams and stars from different eras in the same sport - although I'm sorry, Kobe - but I'll take the team Michael Jordan is playing on, and the devil take the hindmost. But to try and distinguish between players in totally different sports is a fool's errand.

Taking nothing away from Phelps's haul, but the record for most medals that he broke was held by a gymnast which is another sport, like swimming, where medals are more promiscuously distributed. And before Phelps passed her, did anybody ever say that Larisa Latynina was the greatest Olympian?

If not Phelps, Carl Lewis won track and field gold - emphasis on the and, too. Track and field; sprints and long jump in four different Olympics and might have won in a fifth, if Jimmy Carter hadn't made our first mistake on Afghanistan by banning our athletes from the Moscow Games. But Phelps and Lewis competed in marquee sports. Who's to say that someone most of us never heard of like, say, Britain's Steven Redgrave who won the same event, coxless pairs, for five straight Olympics, isn't the best?

Or must longevity be the defining standard? Does any cumulative achievement match what the Czech, Emil Zatopek, did in 1952 alone when he won the 5,000-meters, the 10,000, and just because he had a free day, the marathon?

What I say is, let's stand up and give the wave to all these candidates. And then, speaking of the wave, get rid of the wave. Aren't you sick of the wave? It's been around since the 1970s, it's not fun any more, but it's mandatory to go along if some unoriginal idiot starts it up. Otherwise, you're not a good sport. Please. But, here it is again, periodically at the Olympics. Even Prince William and Kate had to join in when some dimwit started it at the tennis matches.

I was watching a Yankee game the other night when Donald Trump got caught in the wave. He grimaced and went through the motions. And, you know, I felt for him and then I thought to myself: the day you sympathize with Donald Trump is the last straw. When the Olympics end, let us vow to wave goodbye to the wave.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: You know, it's funny that Frank Deford would say that because whenever he's finishing his commentaries, Renee and I do the wave. Anyway, he joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Wooo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne, waving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.