I made the promise to myself that I would not watch the Olympics this year. Those Pollyannas that are willing to log days of flight time, lay out thousands of dollars, and voluntarily pack themselves into 91-thousand seat arenas, they likely buy into the same perceptions that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the media peddle every two years: "[to bring] people together in peace to respect universal moral principles" And, oh yeah. . . to allow the best athletes of the world a chance to compete against each other on a global stage.
As a child of the 1980s, the Olympics began as an indomitable contest of "good vs. evil" that quickly morphed into a disgusting display of capitalistic consumerism after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Today, the Olympics still sport the traditional veneer of yesteryears. But at the core, the event is about six dollar cokes, two weeks of million dollar corporate advertisements, and athletes, which unfortunately, are just this month’s reality television stars for "Fast-Food America."
With that said, I have nevertheless been forced into experiencing some of the Michael Phelps’ mania. Without a doubt, the guy is the Lance Armstrong of the swimming pool. He has won more gold medals than any previous Olympian; as well as winning the most consecutive gold medals within a single Olympic Games. He currently stands in second place behind gymnast Larissa Latynina for the most medals of all time.
All of this "most medals" talk got me to thinking. How many medals are available to a male Olympian in Swimming each Games? And how many are available to contesting athletes in other sports, or to those competing in the Winter Games?
As you might have already guessed, swimming is probably the best sport to be good at if one wants a chance at climbing to the top of the multiple-medalist list.
Below are tables listing the total available medals for the different events of both the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and the 2006 Winter Olympic Games:
Total Olympic Medals by Season, Sport, and Sex
2008 Summer Olympics
|Cycling Mountain Bike||1||1||2|
2006 Winter Olympics
|Short Track Speed Skating||4||4||8|
As can be seen, the highest medal counts for men are found in Athletics (24) and Swimming (17). But unlike Swimming, many events in Athletics are not related to each other. All events in Swimming are, in fact, swimming.
Athletics combines events such as throwing, jumping, walking, and running. Those athletes that excel at marathons will not present any contention in sprints, just as those specializing in throwing objects will come up short in pole vaulting.
For example, at the time this was written, Carl Lewis holds the record as having the fifth most gold (9) and total medals (10) of all time. The only events which he competed in were short distance running (100m, 200m, 4×100m Relay) and long jumps.
When considering only short distance running events, five individual and team non-hurdle medal events exist; seven, including hurdles; and eight, if we include the long jump:
- 100 Meter
- 200 Meter
- 400 Meter
- 4 x 100 Meter
- 4 x 400 Meter
- 110 Meter Hurdles
- 400 Meter Hurdles
- Long Jump
Compare that to the list of events that are related to those Michael Phelps took part in during the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games (not listed are the 50m, 1,500m freestyle, and the 10km marathon):
|1.||100 Meter Backstroke||8.||100 Meter Breaststroke|
|2.||100 Meter Butterfly*||9.||100 Meter Freestyle|
|3.||200 Meter Breaststroke||10.||200 Meter Backstroke|
|4.||200 Meter Freestyle*||11.||200 Meter Butterfly*|
|5.||400 Meter Freestyle||12.||200 Meter Individual Medley*|
|6.||4 x 100 Meter Freestyle Relay*||13.||400 Meter Individual Medley*|
|7.||4 x 200 Meter Freestyle Relay*||14.||4 x 100 Meter Medley Relay*|
* Denotes swimming events Phelps participated in during 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics.
Phelps competed in eight (or 54%) of the fourteen related swimming events in 2004 and 2008. In comparison, Carl Lewis competed and medaled in four events at the 1984 Olympics. That is four (or 50%) out of the eight Athletic events deemed "related," previously.
Drop the two hurdle events or the long jump, and Lewis would have been four (or 66.7%) out of six or three (or 42.9%) out of seven, respectively. Either way, it is clear that the sport of swimming has at least three quarters more related medal events than does Athletics in the current Olympic lineup. (14 events compared to Athletic’s 8).
Moving down the list, Wrestling and Boxing would appear to take the number three and four spots for most medals available to a male Olympian in a single Games. However, because both these sports have a plethora of weight classes, Wrestling actually only has two medal events available for a particular weight class, while Boxing (and Weightlifting) only has one.
Consequently, the event that appears to offer the third most medals to men is actually a tie between the Shooting and Canoe/Kayak Flatwater events, with a total of nine medals up for grabs. However, since it seems reasonably possible for someone to win every event in both sports, they actually tie as the number two spot for total possible medals practically obtainable.
The Winter Olympics are even more dismal for an athlete wishing to wear the crown of "most medals won" since the two top events there – Cross-Country Skiing and Speed Skating – only offer six medals each; a fraction of what is available in Swimming, Shooting, Canoeing, or Athletics.
It is obvious that while Michael Phelps may be an amazing athlete, he has a major, almost unfair, advantage in achieving record breaking aggregate medal counts. If Venus or Serena Williams wanted to tie Phelps’ current medal count, for example, one of the Williams sisters would need to win every Olympic Tennis event from now to the 2036 Summer Games, and then pick up bronze medals in 2040 Games. But, by that time, Venus and Serena will be 58 and 60 years old, respectively. That should make for an interesting show.
So, if you got a kid with a body built like a giant monkey, and want to get him into the Olympics, might I suggest starting him on swimming lessons immediately? Because that is probably the only chance he will have at ever beating Phelps’ gold medal count.