Jim Fall: Things get funny every four years

Jim Fall

Well, Michael Phelps has done it — eight gold medals in this, the Games of the XXIX Olympiad — and the comparisons are raging, fast and furious.

The amazing American swimmer from Baltimore is not only being touted as the most prolific Olympian ever, but also being declared as perhaps the most dominant athlete of all time.

Being the best Olympian ever puts him in the obvious comparison with Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in 1972 and a total of 13 in his career. It vaults him past Carl Lewis, the U.S. sprinter who won four golds in a single Olympics and nine overall, including at least one in four consecutive competitions between 1984 and 1996. It puts him ahead of Eric Heiden, the American speed skater who won five individual gold medals at distances from 500 to 10,000 meters.

His accomplishments rank Phelps ahead of Larissa Latynina, the Soviet gymnast with 18 Olympic medals, 14 coming in individual events. They rank him ahead of Nadia Comaneci, the diminutive Romanian gymnast who won three golds in 1976 and nine during her career. (Yep, she’s the one with three perfect 10.0 scores in one Olympics.)

That position also puts Phelps ahead of Al Oerter, the ku discus thrower who won four consecutive gold medals in his event; ahead of Christa Luding-Rothenburger of Germany, who won only five medals, but she won them in speed skating and cycling, making her the first winner in both the Summer and Winter Games; and ahead of Aleksandr Karelin, the Russian who dominated Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestlers for 13 undefeated years, winning wrestling gold in three consecutive Olympics before losing to Rulon Gardner 1-0 in his quest for a fourth straight title.

The most dominant athlete ever? That puts him up against a basketballer named Michael Jordan; bicyclist Lance Armstrong; tennis’ Roger Federer, and a kid who plays golf named Tiger Woods. Phelps is dominating, but I don’t know about the “most dominant ever.”

The Olympics provide some of the most exciting — and oddly interesting — happenings in sporting history.

The Beijing Olympics has attracted numerous athletes, including 596 from America and 639 from host China, from 204 countries. There were 13 participating countries in the first modern Olympics in 1896: Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Chili, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Switzerland, Sweden and the United States. Of those, only Australia, France, Great Britain and Greece have been back every four years since.

Olympic “gold” is not what is used to be; nor is silver. The last all-gold gold medals were awarded in 1912. The modern medals, designed especially for each Olympic Games, must measure up to stringent specifications. Each medal must be at least three millimeters thick and 60 mm in diameter. Both the gold medals and the silvers are made of 92.5 percent silver. The gold medal is, however, covered in 6 grams of gold.

There is only one Olympic event in which women have established a better world record than the men. Jurgen Schult of Germany holds the men’s discus record at 74.08 meters. Fellow German Gabriele Reinsch holds the women’s record with a toss of 76.8 meters.

Symbolically, the five rings in the Olympic emblem represent the five continents. The modern Olympic flame first appeared in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, symbolizing multiple ideals, including purity and the endeavor for perfection.

The 1904 Olympics in St. Louis must get the nod for the oddest happenings ever. And they both occurred in the same event — the marathon.

Felix Carvajal, a Havana postman, decided he would compete in the marathon for Cuba and begged his fare to the U.S. in the city’s public square. In New Orleans, however, Carvajal lost his money gambling and could not afford train fare to St. Louis. Not to be denied, he decided to run the 700 miles, begging food along the way. He arrived at the Games just as the marathon was about to begin and was going to run the race in his long pants, long-sleeved shirt and hiking boots until convinced by another runner to remove his sleeves and pant legs because of the 100-degree heat.

After his 700-mile run to get to St. Louis, 26 more miles seemed hardly a challenge. One of 31 starters, he was fourth among the 14 finishers.

The circumstances surrounding the apparent winner were just as bizarre. Fred Lorz of the United States took the early lead, only to drop out at about the halfway point because of the heat. He caught his breath and then caught a ride in a car following the runners. It broke down some five miles from the Olympic Stadium, so Lorz decided to run the rest of the way in.

His hitch-hiked ride had put him back in front of the pack and as he entered the stadium and crossed the finish line, to spectators and officials he was the apparent winner. Lorz didn’t come clean until just before the medal presentation. Not funny to those in control, who banned Lorz from amateur track for life.

What have I missed most in this year’s Olympics? The tug-of-war … an event until 1920.

Maryville Daily Forum