Thursday, August 14, 2008

Most Valuable Olympian

A young friend of mine (age 7 actually), on being explained that Michael Phelps had won 8 gold medals, more than anyone else had ever done, asked they just don't name him winner of the Olympics and get it over with. Hmmm. Winner of the Olympics. Maybe a little much, but why isn't there a Most Valuable Olympian (MVO)?

Here's my own list starting at the beginning of modern Olympics. I thought I would need more help in remembering all of these athletes, but I was obsessed with these athletes when I was young, and though, of course, I never saw most of them, I remember reading about all of them with great pleasure, brought back by this exercise.

1896 - Spiridon Louis, a professional water carrier, had to be persuaded to run in the Marathon for the host country, Greece, and, upon winning, became a national hero, being their only gold medalist. Asked by the King what he would want as a reward he replied a carriage and donkey for his business. Good runner. Obviously, either very content, or not so smart.

1900 - Easily Alvin Kraenzlein, a boyhood hero of mine (I can't remember why). He tied for first in the 60 meters (now the shortest is 100), and won the 110 meters, the 220 meter hurdles as well as the long jump. Sort of an early version of Jessie Owens.

1904 - Very difficult choice. Three U.S. stars were outstanding. Archie Hahn won the 60, 100 and 200 meters. Jim Lightbody won the steeplechase, 800 and 1500 meter races, setting a world record in the last. However, a gymnast named George Eyeser, who had a wooden leg, won 6 medals total (3 golds). You got to give it to him, no?

1908 - A rather lackluster Olympics except for a big controversy in the Marathon, where eventually the American Johnny Hayes was declared the winner after the Italian leader had to be helped across the finish line. Later, Hayes lost two challenge matches to the Italian, but he still got the gold. Still, he can't win the MVO with a win like that. Mel Sheppard set an Olympic record in the metric mile (a little more complicated than that, but look it up yourself) and a world record in the 800 meters. To top it off he got a gold for running the final leg in the bizarre 1600 meter medley relay (no longer run).

1912 - Jim Thorpe, who won the decathlon and pentathlon is considered by many the greatest athlete ever. See my January 8, 2008 post for more about him in a story about another Olympian who will probably surprise you.

1916 - No Olympics due to WWII (post publication correction; as my sometime blog-nemesis, Bear, commented below, I meant WWI, not II.)

1920 - Paavo Nurmi. The most amazing runner in history, says I, and many agree. See my April 11, 2007 post for the story of his racing life. In this Olympics he won the 10,000 meters, the individual and team cross-country races as well getting a silver medal in the 5,000 meters. There were also great performances that year by U.S. sprinter Charles Paddock, Britain's Albert Hill (800 and 1500 meter events) and the original Flying Finn, Hannes Kolehmainen, relatively old by then, but who won the marathon anyway.

1924 - The Chariots of Fire Olympics. But none of the guys featured in the movie comes close to the great Nurmi, who won five middle and long distance golds, perhaps the greatest feat in all Olympic history (it is easier to win medals in swimming). He took gold in the 1500 meter, the 5000 meter (and, amazingly, with less than an hour in between the finals), the 3000 meter (team) and the individual and team cross country events. Unreal. My runner up Peter Johann (Johnny) Weissmuller (later starring as Tarzan) won three swimming golds and even one in water polo. A Frenchman, Roger Ducret won five fencing golds, three of them gold. Incidentally, little Sonja Henie was in her first Winter Olympics, and was awful. But she dominating skating for the next 16 years or so.

1928 - No great standouts. Nurmi won his last gold (they would not let him compete in 1932 although he was still the best in the world) so Weissmuller, who took gold in the 100 freestyle and in a relay, gets the nod.

1932 - Babe Didrikson (a woman, if you didn't know), later a great golfer, won the ladies' javelin and hurdles, and came in second in the high jump, but only because they did not recognize her form on one of the jumps, a rule that would not disqualify her now.

1936 Jesse Owens. Four for Four. 100, 200, 400 relay and long jump. Too easy. The emotional impact of his victories at the "Nazi" Olympics in the face of Hitler is legendary and not to be repeated here.

1940 - For obvious reasons, the Winter and Summer Olympics, scheduled to be in Japan, were canceled.

1944 - Still canceled.

1948 Fanny Blankers-Coen, a Dutch 30 runner won four golds in the 100 and 200 meters, the 80 meter hurdles and 4 x 100 relay. If she was American we'd all know her name. One of the all time great women athletes.

1952 - Another boyhood hero of mine, Emil Zatopek from Czechoslovakia, won the 5000 and 10,000 meter races but also the marathon in his first attempt.

1956 - Vladlimir Kuts, a Russian, beat out his nemesis, Chris Chataway, and even Emil Zatopek in the 5000 meter and then took gold in the 10,000 too. But, the MVP goes to Tony Sailer of Austria who won the downhill, the slalom and the giant slalom in the Winter Olympics, a triple.

1960 - With tough MVO competition from those like Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolf won the 100 and 200 meter sprints and then got gold in the 4 x 100 relay.

1964 - Don Schollander, an early version of Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps, won four gold medals in 100 and 400 meter freestyle, and in two relays.

1968 - In my humble but biased opinion, the greatest Olympics ever, held in Mexico City. With too many choices, you have to give it to long jumper Bob Beamon who broke the world record by about two feet, a record that lasted for 23 years. But what a list of those he beats out including high jumper Dick Fosbury, who revolutionized his sport, Heavyweight flag waving, George Foreman, Jim Hines (100 meters) and the great Lee Evans (400 meters, with a world record that lasted 20 years and part of the world record setting 4 x 400 meter team). If not for Beamon, however, I'd have given it to skiier Jean Claude Killy who swept the slam, giant slalom and down hill events (although it was a very weird slalom event that I won't go into here -- look it up).

1972 - Mark Spitz won 7 golds in swimming and until this year, that wasn't touched. If not for him, I would have to give it to Olga Korbut, an amazing Russian gymnast, who only won two gold medals but electrified the world with her charm and athletic ability. No one who watched her will ever forget her.

1976 - Another gymnast, Nadia Comaneci, scored 7 perfect scores and won the all around and two other medals. She had stiff competition for MVO, though, from, Alberto Juantorena, who won both the 400 and 800 meters, a feat never performed before, and a Finnish runner, Lasse Viren, who almost managed to equal Emil Zatopek by winning the 5,000 and 10000 meters (for the 2nd Olympics in a row), but only (I'm being sarcastic) finished 5th in the marathon. The American boxing team won gold medals with Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, Jr., Leon and Michael Spinks and Leo Randolph, all future world champions. And in the Winter Olympics, Franz Klammer won the downhill with the most amazing run I've ever seen, that would have won him my MVO, if not for Comaneci's best ever performance that has set the standard in the profession until this day.

1980 - Eric Heiden won 5 speed skating golds between 200 and 10,000 meters, so dominating the sport that the likes may not have been seen again until Michael Phelps this past week.

1984 - An easy one. Carl Lewis pulled off a Jesse Owens, winning the the 100, 200 meters, a spot on the 4 x 100 meter team as well as the long jump.

1988 - Matt Biondi won 7 swimming medals, 5 of them gold, making him the probably the third best swimmer ever after Spitz and before Phelps, though he has none of their notoriety. He beats out Flo Joyner (3 golds and 1 silver in sprints) and skiier Alberto Tomba (Tomba la bomba) who won two golds in the slalom events. Yet, I give it to another water sport competitor, Greg Louganis who won the 3 and 10 meter diving contests after smacking his head on the board. Sorry, Matt.

1992 - Vitaly Scherbo, an undersung Russian gymnast, won 6 events, 5 of them gold, 4 in one day. Again, were he an American, we would all know his name.

1996 - An amazing little man known as "The Pocket Hercules," whose real name was Naim Suleymanoglu (believe me, I had to look that up), from Turkey, becomes the first weightlifter ever to win 3 golds. He had tough competition from the amazing Michael Johnson, who set a world record in the 200 meters and won gold in the 400 too.

2000 - Ruland Gardner, a great big, but not particularly accomplished graeco-roman wrestler, gets the MVP for winning the gold medal by beating possibly the most dominant athlete in any sport in modern times, Alexander Karelin, whose legend I can't even begin to go into here.

2004 - Believe it or not, it was Michael Phelps, this years star, who won the 100 and 200 meter butterfly and the 200 and 400 meter medley's as well as taking the bronze in the 200 meter freestyle, not really his event, just to try his hand against the two best at the time).

2008 - Michael Phelps, Michael Phelps, Michael Phelps, without it even being over. Right? Well, yes, but it is a tie, because in the last few days, Usein Bolt, a Jamaica speedster, utterly smashed the world record in the 100 meters without even trying (literally, he almost stopped to celebrate), and then beat Michael Johnson's own stunning world record in the 200. He is the probably the greatest sprinter of all time (obviously, the fastest too). Both very young men, they may do it again in 2012. If you put a gun to my head, I couldn't pick one over the other. You might say Phelps because he actually had competition (winning one race by a finger tip) but on the other hand, Bolt has redefined what it means to be fast, and has no competition at this time.

Thanks to Wikipedia which I used for the specific stats (really, y'think I could actually remember all this stuff without checking? Come on).

In making these picks, I admit a bias towards track and field and then swimming, and for the Summer over Winter Olympics. Deal with it, correct me if you like, and see you next week.


  1. Anonymous3:19 PM

    I saw Ruland Gardner on CNBC today
    as an announcer for wrestling and
    he is quite accomplished. It's not as easy at it looks. Many sports stars try and they fail miserably. Best of luck to him.

  2. Mea culpa. I should have said, he was not accomplished in comparison to the great Karelin, his opponent. Any Olympian is highly accomplished. I did make him my Most Valuable Olympian, you know. Even if that doesn't redeem me for you, that's ok. If I don't say at least one dumb thing per post, or make one mistake, something is amiss.

  3. Anonymous3:31 PM

    Too easy to criticize your picks, since there are so many great Olympic moments. Hard to leave out Bob Seagren for his record setting decathalon(don't remember the year, don't feel like looking it up)also this Austrian ski-jumper (well, maybe he's a Finn) who was the Nurmi of ski jumping for about four olympics. No Mary Lou Retton? No Wilma Rudolph? What about that Russian who won (Alexseyev I think) the super heavyweight weightlifting crown while setting world records in three straight Olympics? What about Al Oerter who dominated his sport as well as Michael Phelps..... oh, and one last thing, the Olympics was not canceled in 1916 due to WW II....


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .