Swimming, Flag-Waving, and Wretched Excess

Was it just me, or was the Olympic swimming program both numbingly redundant and annoyingly nationalistic?  By the end of the second day, not only had the events already begun to blur (“Hey, didn’t they already show this one?”), but with so many Americans winning, I’d grown tired of seeing the Stars and Stripes and hearing our national anthem.  I found myself rooting for Lithuania, if for no other reason than to hear their song and see what their flag looked like.

Swimming is a boring sport.  The same swimmers are in the same pool basically doing contrived variations of the same thing.   “Look, I’m swimming regular!  Now I’m swimming this way!  Now I’m swimming this other way!  Now I’m doing it backwards!  Now I’m alternating!  Now I’m doing the same thing all over again, but in a relay!”  There’s a tremendous amount of repetition and event overlap in Olympic swimming, and, more significantly, a tremendous amount of medal overlap.

To learn that Michael Phelps had been named by FINA (the international governing body for swimming) “the Greatest Olympic Athlete of All Time” was disappointing.  It was disappointing not only because FINA had a parochial interest in the award (it would be like the Bicycle Federation naming Lance Armstrong the “World’s Greatest Human Being”), but because the title was based solely on arithmetic.

While no one can deny that Phelps is the greatest swimmer in history (Who’s going to argue?  The man won 22 medals, 18 of them gold), it’s silly to call him the “greatest Olympian.”  He certainly can’t be labeled that purely on the basis of all the medals he’s won because swimmers have a distinct advantage.  Nobody wins more medals than swimmers.  Anyone who’s followed Olympic sports knows that swimming and multiple medals go together like vodka and regrets.

Didn’t Mark Spitz win seven Olympic gold medals way back in 1972?  And didn’t Phelps himself win eight golds at Beijing in 2008?   These men weren’t able to win all that Olympic gold simply because they were great athletes.  Yes, they were extraordinary athletes, but they were able to win all those medals primarily because they were swimmers.

Compare swimming to track and field.  No track man or woman—no matter how great or how superior to the competition—ever wins eight medals (gold or otherwise) at one Olympics.  It doesn’t happen.  The legendary Jesse Owens won only four golds at the 1936 Games, and Carl Lewis, one of America’s all-time greatest tracksters, won a total of 10 medals during his entire Olympic career—less than half as many medals as Phelps.

Consider:  If a sprinter doubles up and wins both the 100 and 200 meters, that’s two gold medals; and if he or she runs a leg on a winning 4 x 100 relay, that brings the medal count to three.  While three medals is a truly remarkable achievement for one individual track athlete, it’s barely worth a second mention for some teenage Olympic swimmer.

In order for a sprinter to win a Phelpsian seven medals at one Olympic games, track and field would have to radically change its format.  It would have to model itself after swimming.  Relying heavily on redundancy and novelty, there would have to be a 50 meter dash, a 60 meter dash, a 100 meter dash, a 200 meter dash, a 4 x 50 relay, a 4 x 75 relay, a 4 x 100 relay, and a 50 meter crab-walk.

And before anyone goes ballistic over a 50 meter crab-walk being made an Olympic event, let them study film of swimmers doing something called the Butterfly.  If the “Fly” isn’t a totally contrived stroke, invented purely for the sake of filling out the program and awarding medals, what the heck is it?

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: dmacaray@gmail.com. Read other articles by David.