Home > Uncategorized > Who is “The Greatest Olympian”?

Who is “The Greatest Olympian”?

There’s a lot to process upon the conclusion of the 2008 Olympic Games, most of which don’t have anything to do with athletic competition and everything to do with the actual competitions themselves. But rather than beat a dead horse with questions about human rights violations and the displacement of millions of Beijing’s underclass in the years leading up to the games, I want to focus on a single question.

Who’s the greatest Olympian?

Casual observers and many in the sports media would say it’s Michael Phelps. There’s certainly no denying the impressive manner in which Phelps dominated almost every race and the excitement brought by one of the closest race finishes in Olympics history. Then in the final days, a cocky Jamaican runner by the name of Bolt made made an argument for himself by winning and setting the world record in both the 100m and 200m.

However, I believe that any conversation about “the greatest Olympians” has to include more than just a medal count and race times – it should also include context, meaning, and historical impact. Any discussion involving “the greatest Olympian” should acknowledge that the games are – and always have been – about more than athletic competition and accomplishment.

With that in mind, I put forth the argument that the greatest Olympians weren’t men that racked up double-digit medal counts or dominated their sports in back-to-back Olympiads.

In October of 1968, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the Gold and Bronze medals respectively in the men’s 200m foot race. Set against the tumutuous backdrop of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, Smith and Carlos set aside their own personal glory in order to make a statement concerning justice, human rights, and equality.

With the support of Australian silver medalist Peter Norman – who wore a “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge – Smith and Carlos approached the medal stand to receive their boon. Rather than feign being choked up and sing along to “The Star Spangled Banner,” they decided to do something far more genuine and inherently American. And with that single gesture, they not only exercised their right of free speech and expression but also sent a message to their friends and family back home; a message equal in defiance, bravery, and support. That message? “The world is watching.”

It was a moment that, like so many others during that time period, split public opinion. Some saw the salute as an unpatriotic and disrespectful gesture towards Old Glory while others saw the gesture for what it really was: a display of love and concern for not only their country, but what their country could and should be rather than what it professed it was. Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the Olympic Games to make a statement that, at its root, is really what these games are all about. Through athletic competition, they spread a message of peace and justice that still resonates.

Sadly, that seems in direct conflict with the 2008 games in Beijing.

It’s worth noting that the American government is the unfortunate but understandable position of having to play footsie with China. It’s not that the violations of human rights and violent oppression don’t bother us, but rather that in dealing with such a potentially dangerous and powerful nation-state, we have to do what we can to contain them while taking small steps wherever we can to bring the message to them in the hopes that they inch ever so slowly towards reform. It’s using the carrot rather than the stick, which only works with a country so vast in size that it has no ambitions towards invading their neighbors let alone taking over the entire free world.

However, that doesn’t mean individuals are tied to this diplomatic approach and as a result can’t bring their message in some manner to the global stage. These games satisfied the Phelps Phanatics and fans of Beach Volleyball, but the lack of effort in even addressing these issues has been at best disappointing and at worst distressing. It would be one thing if there was a wall of silence, but the cowardice of athletes and visiting politicians was openly displayed through their unending praise of the Chinese government’s efforts and preparations, which displaced millions of their own people in defiance of basic human rights and decency. It’s one thing for a government to take a diplomatic approach in an awkward situation, but it’s another thing entirely for individuals to not take a stand and actively engage in propaganda by repeating the misinformation and lies spread by the Chinese government and its state-controlled media ad nauseum.

Not openly complaining about a loss and/or questionable scoring practices by judges is good sportsmanship. Remaining silent in the face of such fantastic injustice is something else entirely that doesn’t even belong in the same sentence as the word “sport.”

In 2008, Michael Phelps won enough gold to fill Fort Knox and Usain Bolt proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that he was the fastest man alive without even breaking a sweat. But while their efforts have permanence in putting their names in record books and on the lips of the viewing audience, the nature of their sports guarantees that the standards they set will one day be bested. In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided an enduring and powerful image that inspired people to change and continues to provide inspiration and a powerful message. No number of medals, races, or accolades run will ever match up to that.

More later…

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: