Debating Greatness: Michael Phelps and the Olympic Absurdity of ESPN

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Debating Greatness: Michael Phelps and the Olympic Absurdity of ESPN
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What's it like being the best thing ever, Mr. Phelps?

We were in the midst of the first week of the Olympics when it started, a disconnected dialogue between totally separated groups. NBC’s commentators and analysts, in all of their overly excited Olympic enthusiasm, placed Michael Phelps into the pantheon of historical greats, naming him not only the greatest swimmer of all time, but perhaps one of its greatest Olympians.

With 22 medals to his name—18 of them gold—from four sets of games across 12 years on different continents, Michael Phelps has left his mark on Olympic history and certainly, on his sport.

Just don’t tell that to the guys at ESPN. In the morning, Mike and Mike were polite in suggesting that, maybe, NBC’s showering of praise on Phelps was a bit overblown.

In the afternoon, a histrionic Skip Bayless—who apparently still hasn’t learned any lessons from his very-public shaming by Mark Cuban—bloviated that swimming didn’t require any hand-eye coordination and success in the sport was merely a product of repetitive motion. There’s no ball involved, and swimmers, for some reason, are able to compete in their sport for many years longer than track stars or basketball players. 

Rick Reilly weighed in by noting that Michael Phelps won a lot of medals but, then again, of all the gold medals, only eight were in individual events—the same number of gold medals Carl Lewis won in individual track events.

Reilly went on to say that merely having a lot of hardware doesn’t make a person the greatest: after all, Allison Krauss has won more Grammies than any female artist, but no one’s going to suggest that Krauss is a greater musician or artist or vocalist than Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston or Etta James.

Colin Cowherd noted the fact that only half of the world’s population can swim, so the “pool of talent” (his words, not mine) is smaller than for track stars because, evidently, everyone can run. When your competition only comprises three billion people instead of six and a half, you have an edge.

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The critiques went on. They were consistent, skeptical, and at times, unusually dismissive.

They were also reactive, the protestations of group-thinkers who play the part of naysayers against an institutional establishment.

Though they are correct in asserting that NBC’s fawning over Phelps was excessive, the ESPNners’ response had all the poorly-timed alacrity and hastiness they themselves are so often guilty of. After all, doesn’t ESPN line its coffers through the glorification and burial of its nascent and fallen heroes?

There are arguments to be made in favor of Phelps being the greatest Olympian ever. He has competed in four separate Olympics and medaled in four of them. He has more medals than others in a sport that is notoriously competitive and extremely challenging physically and psychologically.

He had to win in the age of the instantaneous Internet, dealing with a media circus that never ends and a worldwide audience that never sleeps. Which is to say, even out of the pool, he has more on his shoulders than past athletes do.

Phelps medaled more in the 2008 Olympics than anyone before him—in swimming or otherwise—and has left the 2012 Games with more medals than anyone else by long miles. He did so in a variety of events that each requires different strengths and training regimens.

He competed in multiple events across multiple days, switching from teammate to opponent with his own U.S. squad members. 

Professional swimming requires all the discipline, time commitment, and energy of other sports: the seven-day-a-week training, the long hours, the reps, the weight lifting, the conditioning, and the dieting. It’s not as if professional swimmers leap from the kiddie-pool to the deep-end with no preparation.

And, for the most part, swimmers do it alone. Like tennis players, there’s a community of competitors nearby, people with whom they can relate and work. But once the gun goes off, everyone is trying to bury everyone else.

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So why the long face, ESPN analysts? Why carp about NBC’s enthusiasm and support for a guy who really could be the best ever?

Well, for starters, there are arguments that Phelps isn’t the best ever. He was a swimmer and swimmers have longer careers (typically) than other athletes: there will likely never be a middle-aged world-class sprinter, though some swimmers are trying their hand at the extremes of longevity. With the blessing of a longer career, of course he was able to compete for more medals.

Moreover, Phelps didn’t participate in a sport that injures its athletes beyond repair: you rarely hear of a swimmer who tore his rotator cuff or developed early-age arthritis to such a degree that he or she could no longer compete.

And maybe most importantly, that troubling word greatest has so much nuance, so much connotation, so much baggage. How was Phelps the greatest? He didn’t change the world in the way that Jesse Owens did. He didn’t crush the field in the way Usain Bolt does, even with a nagging injury. He didn’t resurrect the hopes of a nation or put a particular program on the map.

When one thinks of professional swimming, do we immediately think of Phelps? Maybe, though there are other stories—those of the 2012 female Olympians especially—that pop to mind.

When we think of the Olympic Games, do we think of Phelps? Probably not.

But my sense is that ESPN’s rejection of the idea of Phelps-as-greatest-ever isn’t really rooted in anything that has to do with Phelps, swimming, or the Olympics.

After all, even if Phelps isn’t the best ever, he’s still one of them, but the guys who broadcast night and day from Connecticut couldn’t even give him that much.

The Olympics make all sports watchers a little nuts. No one is happy with the broadcasts or the analysis or the commentary. No one likes the tape delay. The people who are brought in to talk about their respective Olympic sports can be histrionic and overly critical without seeming to allow viewers at home to enjoy some sport for what it is.

Then again, hardly anyone even likes the sports that are being broadcast non-stop for 17 days every four years. Only three times per decade (at most) do any casual sports fans know who the top swimmers are in the world, let alone the top runners or jumpers or badminton players.

But the Olympics—as a broadcast entity, as a commodity, as a set of athletic events—are owned by NBC in this country. It’s the only set of sporting events over which ESPN has no particular domain. For a 24-hour sports network that prides itself on instant analysis and instant reaction, that must rankle.

At least somewhat. Especially in the doldrums of summer when there’s not much happening besides the middle-end of the baseball season, the preseason of football, and offseason trades of the NBA.

When one listens to—and parses through—the analysis offered up by ESPN, one notes immediately how poorly reasoned most of the arguments are, how most of them don’t attend either to the challenging realities of being a professional swimmer or the possibility that we might have indeed witnessed the end of one of the greatest sports careers in any sport, ever.

Skip Bayless’s remark that excellence at swimming is merely repetitive motion is perhaps the least intellectually substantive observation of the sport one could possibly put into the public domain.

Talent in every sport is a product of repetitive motion. How many foul shots has Kobe put up in practice to get to a point where he can score 80 percent of the time from the line? How many faux-snaps has any elite quarterback taken to make sure they don’t trip over their own feet? Hell, any mediocre quarterback?

Repetitive motion—and dedication to a regimen—is what makes any athlete worth his or her salt, from the greatest server in tennis to the best pitcher in baseball. And swimmers don’t have other players to rely on for success.

A pitcher would never be expected to win a perfect game without the assistance of his teammates. A quarterback must throw to somebody. But swimmers rely only on themselves and, in some tight cases, the shortcomings of their opponents.

Sports analysts—especially American sports analysts—routinely fail to grasp that what makes athletes great is time and energy: all studies across fields, across talents, across given aptitudes, show that the more hours one puts into something, the better one becomes (at least up to a certain point).

But people like Bayless—who time and again talk about how much someone “wants it” in the moment, who talk about coming up short, who have themselves never played competitive sports—always fail to recognize the requisite dedication to even make it near the podium precisely because they were never athletes.

What is astounding is that they are, in fact, full-time analysts and commentators who do not deliver cogent arguments, occupying dead airtime in a long summer that only highlights both their professional absurdity and even redundancy. When ESPN cannot occupy the space of prime mover in the sports universe at a moment when every nation in the world is watching, what results is an orgy of idiotic observation and contrarianism.

The final question, as always, is whether the debate even matters. The metrics of comparison across sports, across eras, across competitions are completely unrelatable. Is Phelps better—or a greater Olympian—than Usain Bolt? Was Gretzky a greater hockey player than Federer is a tennis player? Was Ruth a better baseball player than Aaron?

The fun of the questions isn’t in the answers. It’s in the inquiry itself, the riddle, stepping into that empty space where there are no rules and we as analysts or critics or commentators or sports enthusiasts become empowered to make these sorts of judgments. We get to be kings in a realm of total unreason. We enjoy the luxury of taking indomitable—yet also unprovable—positions. We get to take risks and reap rewards.

The problem with the ESPN crew’s dismissal of Phelps isn’t that its members believe Phelps isn’t the greatest Olympian ever, an assertion in a debate that has no end. No, the problem is their dismissal of swimming as a challenging sport and their continued reliance on poor comparisons afterward to support their claims.

Moreover, they fail to acknowledge the key to the structure of the debate: that it is far easier to assert that Phelps isn’t the greatest Olympian ever than it is to demonstrate that he is. The pro-Phelps side bears the burden of proof; the naysayers win so long as they continue say no.

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