Who is the greatest ever Olympian? Balloon debate

Sunday 30 October, 5.30pm until 6.30pm, Café

The 2008 Beijing Games were dominated by two outstanding Oympians – Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Phelps’ haul of 8 gold medals beat Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds in a single Olympiad. Usain Bolt astonished the world by not only winning gold in both the 100 and 200 metres but shattering both world records in the process. Both men have been lauded as the ‘greatest ever’, but how do we measure sporting greatness? Is it the number of medals won? Phelps has now accumulated 16 Olympic medals over to his name – second only to Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina who won 18 medals over three Olympiads. Or is Usain ‘Lightning’ Bolt’s achievement greater because he jawdroppingly redrew the boundaries of human capability. Bolt, however, has only competed at one Games whereas British rower Steve Redgrave is the only man to have won gold medals in 5 consecutive Olympiads.

What about Olympians whose iconic status transcends sporting achievement? Black sprinter Jesse Owens winning gold in Nazi Germany or Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving a black power salute on the podium in Mexico 1968 resonated beyond the sporting arena. Muhammed Ali, likewise, became a civil rights hero after he threw his boxing gold medal into the Ohio river in disgust after being racially abused (so legend has it). Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen struck a blow for women’s equality by winning 4 gold medals in the 1948 London Games. The 30-year old mother of two was considered too old to compete and was criticised for neglecting her domestic duties. An alternative perspective is that the competitors who best embody Pierre de Coubertin’s ethos that what really matters is taking part aren’t the gold medallists but the also-rans like British ski jumper Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards or Equatorial Guinea swimmer Eric ‘The Eel’ Mousambani. Both men achieved celebrity status despite coming last in their respective events. Even if we agree it’s medals that count, track and field disciplines are widely seen as the true Olympic events that really count. Events like beach volleyball or synchronised swimming are derided as novelty pseudo-sports, while some disdain sports like sailing, rowing or equestrianism, which are really only accessible to wealthy competitors. Purists insist events involving points for style must be suspect, and some commentators are opposed to the inclusion of football and tennis, which already have prestige tournaments that diminish the significance of the Olympics.

So how do we balance the number of medals won with sheer physical achievement, dominance over time, cultural and political significance, force of personality and the prestige of particular events? Who is the greatest ever Olympian?

The Olympians being represented by our panellists in the balloon are:

Dorando Pietri (London 1908)

Mark Spitz (Munich 1972)

Nadia Comăneci (Montreal 1976)

Daley Thompson (Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984)

Carl Lewis (Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996)

Usain Bolt (Beijing 2008)

Dr Shirley Dent
communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor, tlfw.co.uk; author, Radical Blake

Rebecca Jenkins
cultural historian and novelist; Royal Literary Fund Fellow; former writing partner of Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins

Dr Simon Knight
senior youth work practitioner; vice chair, Play Scotland

Jane Sandeman
convenor, IoI Parents Forum; contributor, Standing up to Supernanny; director of finance and central services, Cardinal Hume Centre

Richard Stubbs
educational consultant; former teacher; advocate, Greenwich Advocacy

Christine Thompson
manager, UK government relations, SABMiller

Duleep Allirajah
sports columnist, spiked; Crystal Palace fan

Produced by
Duleep Allirajah sports columnist, spiked; Crystal Palace fan
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