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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Olympics, Part II: Legends

It's fun to watch an athlete, knowing that he is one of the all time greats in his sport. Michael Phelps has long since surpassed Mark Spitz to become the greatest swimmer of all time. He may or may not win individual gold in Rio, but either way, his legacy is cemented.

Usain Bolt is the greatest sprinter of all time. No one else has ever won the Olympic double double, and Bolt has a slew of world championship titles as well. The margins by which Bolt broke the 100 and 200 world records were stunning, and it's hard to imagine anyone breaking those records any time soon. In any case, win or lose next week, Bolt's status is cemented.

Jesse Owens and Johnny Weissmuller qualify as legends because you've heard their names even if you're not a fan of their sport. (They "transcended" their sport, so to speak.) If you are a fan, names like these seem to acquire not just athletic significance, but almost historic significance.

Of course, Owens' name actually does have a historical tint to it, because he won in Berlin in 1936, where he was supposedly snubbed by Hitler. That turns out to be a complete myth, but it has stuck, because it has served an important propaganda purpose.

Johnny Weissmuller was probably more famous as the movie Tarzan than he was as a swimmer, but those two roles were inextricably entwined, and he is now a part of history.

Even in a sport like swimming, which doesn't have a big fan base in this country, there are names non-fans are at last vaguely familiar with: Duke Kahanamoku, Dawn Fraser, Don Schollander, Mark Spitz, Shane Gould, Janet Evans, and a few others. (This is a far, far smaller club than the official Swimming Hall of Fame.)

It's interesting to speculate which names from the current era will enter that smaller, more exclusive club. Michael Phelps is obviously already a member; Ryan Lochte probably is, too.

Katie Ledecky seems set to join that club. She's already set twelve individual world records so far; she'll likely set another in the 800 free in a couple days.

It's gratifying to see her thrive. She's tough, enthusiastic, hard-working, and unpretentious. She's also obviously competing clean: her progression was rapid but steady, and she won her first Olympic gold as a 15-year-old. She's big and strong, but her body is obviously not molded by steroids. And she never had a sudden spike in performance in sync with a sudden, suspicious change in build.

Ledecky is a slight favorite to win the 200 tonight (Sarah Sjostrom could provide stiff competition), and she should easily win the 800 in three days. Ledecky's records should last a long time, possibly even longer than Janet Evans's 17 year run.

Today she's the young wunderkind; in twenty years, she'll be a legend. Even non-swimming fans will likely be at least vaguely familiar with her name.

Update, next day: three out of three commenters have now told me that they've never heard of most of those "legendary" swimmers. Looks like I'm dead wrong about them being household names. 


Steven said...

I've never heard of any of those swimmers you listed except for Michael Phelps. Never even heard of Katie Ledecky.

Phelps, Ian Thorpe and Rebecca Adlington were the only ones I knew before this Olympics.

The diver Tom Daley is more famous than any of the swimmers in this country but maybe this 100m breaststroke kid will be famous now.

I heard a cool suggestion today. If you win an olympic event while breaking a world record, you should get a platinum medal.

Liking your olympic posts.

hooter tooter said...

"... non-fans are at last vaguely familiar with: Duke Kahanamoku, Dawn Fraser, Don Schollander, Mark Spitz, Shane Gould, Janet Evans, and a few others."

On that list, I'd heard of Mark Spitz only. I haven't watched TV, or listened to radio, in over 25 years now, so I guess that would explain it.

John Craig said...

Steven --
I guess I'm overestimating their fame then. My perspective must be warped since I'm such a big fan of the sport, and I'm older.

Thank you.

John Craig said...

Hooter tooter --
I guess I'm outvoted here, I thought they were household names.

You haven't watched TV or listened to radio in 25 years??!! You sound like almost as much of a hermit as me. I'm guessing you read a lot. Good for you of keeping yourself pure, though, especially as regards TV; it's mostly propaganda these days. With radio, at least there are both liberal and conservative viewpoints available. On TV, the only "conservative" viewpoint available is Fox News, but even they pay heed to politically correct boundaries.

Do you read newspapers?

Runner Katy said...

Hi John,

I'm not a huge swimming fan, but big Olympics fan (as a big elite running fan). Katie Ledecky is the talk of all the runners, with Phelps and Lochte, of course. The rest of the names you've mentioned, other than Spitz are unfamiliar to me, sadly. (I'll get on it and learn who they are, though).

Thanks for a great Olympics post! Glad you are enjoying this great historic time, as well!

John Craig said...

Runner Katy --
Yikes, looks like I way overestimated people's familiarity with old-time swimmers. I grew up reading about them, so I have no perspective.

Glad you're enjoying the Olympics. Next week it's your turn.

Steven said...

John, what's the biggest you can get without steroids? whats like an example of a very muscular dude who hasn't taken steroids so I can see the difference.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Honestly, you would know the answer to that as well as I would. I'd say Vasily Alekseyev, the Soviet super heavyweight weight-lifting champion of the 1970's, would be a good example, since his body has none of the hallmarks of steroid use. He had a big belly, no discernible definition, and was just sort of a mountain of a man at 6', 353 pounds. (Google-image him, you'll see what I'm talking about.) But then again I couldn't swear he didn't have some artificial help. He was, after all, an athlete of the communist bloc at a time when they were heavily doping, and I'd have to be naive to think he was pure.

Another example might be Shaquille O'Neal, the basketball player. As far as I know, he never took steroids; but again, I couldn't swear to it. He was 7' 1", 344 pounds, and awfully powerful.

Another example might be someone like Nikolai Valuev, the acromegalic Russian heavyweight boxing champion, whom I'm sure you're familiar with. He never struck me as being all that strong, but he's a good example of what can happen with an acromegalic. The heavyweight pro wrestler "Big Show" is awfully big and strong, and I'm guessing he's natural, apart from having been acromegalic. A final example in that category would be Andre The Giant, the pro wrestler who starred in "The Princess Bride." Towards the end of his career, he was a sort of pathetic specimen, all belly with thin arms and legs. But when he was young, he was supposedly incredibly strong. He was billed at 7'4", 520 pounds, which means he was probably a little bit less than that; but he was probably pretty close to that.

Another example would be that guy in Game of Thrones, Hafthor Bjornsson, who's obviously incredibly strong, but is also almost certainly on the juice. That's part of the problem these days, when a guy is extremely big and strong naturally, he's likely to go into some profession, or at least sport, in which his size and strength are an advantage, and if he does that, he's going to be tempted to do everything possible to increase his already exceptional strength. end up with a lot of strong men like Bjornsson.

One way to weed out the juicers is to see who the strongest guy you can find from before the steroid era, which, to be safe, we should define as 1960 onward. The strongest guy I can think of from that era is Paul Anderson, the legendary strongman. Google him, you'll see what I"m talking about. Some say he was the strongest man who ever lived:

Rifleman said...

Don't forget Shirley Babashoff. Or more recently Matt Biondi. They were both a big deal at one time.

John Craig said...

Rifleman --
Finally! Someone who remembers some old swimmers. Did you have a connection to the sport, or are you corroborating my theory that some legends do get remembered?

Steven said...

Most of those guys were naturally very big and a bit fat. They didn''t have much definition or big traps. They're bodies looked big but normal.

What I want to be able to do is look at somebody who has spent a lot of time in the gymn lifting weights and be able to say that guy probably hasn't or probably has taken steroids.
I just don't have much handle on what is possible naturally for a gymn rat. I wonder how big a guy with a normal frame can get without steroids.

Also, are there testosterone outliers who can look like they're on steroids but aren't, 99th or 99.9 percentile guys?

John Craig said...

Steven --
Yes, genetics has a lot t do with it. The thing is, we neve know of sure who's juicing and who's not unless we see a big sudden change over a short period of time, with the resulting steroid signatures, liked humped traps and a well-defined line between the pecs, the things I alway mention.

I'm sure there must be some people who look suspicious but in fact are clean, but usually it's pretty easy to tell, at least if get to see the before and after pictures.

gambino dellacroce said...

All this wouldn't surprise me. OTOH, I do recall reading when I was younger a book called "Hitler's Olympics" and found it to be a reasonably balanced and interesting account of the propaganda approach taken to the 1936 Olympics (although I could be wrong with the benefit of years) and the cast of characters surrounding the games.

Alter Ego said...

A little out of place here but I found a link to the Surfwise documentary that I referenced in a post a couple years ago ( To jog your memory, I was wondering if you thought Doc Paskowitz, the central character of the story, was a sociopath, and I'm still curious to hear what you (and any other interested readers) think:

John Craig said...

Alter Ego --
I just re-read that post to refresh my memory. I did give you my opinion based on the little I'd read of his life, but that movie you link is an hour and 33 minutes long, I'm sorry but I'm just not interested enough to spend that amount of time watching it. Maybe someone else will and give their opinion here.

Again, my (very superficial) opinion was maybe a garden variety narcissist, but not a sociopath. I could easily be wrong, though.

gambino dellacroce said...

My mind boggles at the extent of Phelps' dominance. I love the history of the grand Olympic champions, I remember even reading about a guy called Ray Ewry, who was the standing long jump champion at the turn of the 20th century, Duke Kahanamoku etc etc.

John Craig said...

Gambino Dellacroce --
Ha, I remember Ray Ewry as well. Standing long jump, and standing high jump too. Eight gold medals.

I just looked him up, his record for the standing long jump was 11' 5", which is actually incredible. Wiki said that his world record for the standing long jump was still the record when the event was discontinued in 1936. I think the unofficial record now is only something like 12 feet. When I was younger I could do 8' 8", which I was proud of, 11 feet to me is incredible. The article said that Ewry as a kid had polio, too.