President Phelps?

[Amy Bass, Morphizm]
There are apples, there are oranges, and then there is Michael Phelps.

Man, has this been bugging me. I tried to let it go. I let the Olympics end, let the Closing Ceremony comes to a close, and thought I would get over this. But I can’t. Because he is everywhere, in all of his deserved splendor; someone who worked hard and earned much for it.

The greatest Olympian of all time. Yeah. That’s where I have the problem. Greatest? What does that even mean?

Because of the eight medals in one Games? Because of the haul of 14 career golds? Because he has a wingspan not seen since the age of the dinosaurs?

Most decorated, yes. Absolutely. Greatest swimmer of all time? I’ll give it to him. But is he greatest Olympian? Of all Olympians? I think that we’re asking the wrong question.

We do it all the time. We come up with the wrong answer because we ask the wrong question. In Beijing, at the Olympic Games, Michael Phelps, without question, achieved something superlative. But there are things to consider. First of all, he is a swimmer, and in Beijing he swam in eight events, and had 100 percent success. If he was a beach volleyball player, he could have also had 100 percent success – just ask Misty and Kerry. But they each walked away with one gold medal. Their 100 percent looks a little different from his, doesn’t it?

Ask Al Oerter. He, too, had 100 percent success – for four consecutive Olympic Games – for a total of four gold medals. Not eight. Not fourteen. Four. Because that’s all the discus wants to give you.

What about Bryan Clay? He walked away from Beijing with one gold medal, but had to participate in ten separate disciplines to do so. Pretty great, right? And how many soccer games did the U.S. women have to work their way through to walk away with one stingy gold each?

The right answer to the wrong question can lead us in dangerous directions, one with far more consequences than how to historically locate Michael Phelps’ truly awesome athletic achievement. Take the presidential campaign, for example. With Barack Obama’s earth-shattering performance (heck, even Pat Buchanan acknowledged that he rocked the house) in Denver, he got his spot in history, regardless of November’s outcome. Pundits crowed about what it all meant, and many in the mainstream media asked the same question: will being black be enough? Their answer? Likely not – he’s going to have to be “good” too.

Um, right answer. Wrong question.

Of course he’s going to have to be good – smart, savvy, diplomatic, winsome, charismatic, ethical, etc. But the real question just isn’t being asked, although the closeness of the poll numbers despite the crumbling state of affairs that the U.S. finds itself in would indicate that it is something being answered within the four walls of people’s homes: will being white be enough for John McCain to win?

Can anyone answer that question? Is it one that anyone cares to take a stab at?

The election of 2008 stands to be the most historically important in anyone’s memory, and that was before the entry of Alaska governor to the race. It might even be the greatest. But before we award it a gold medal, it might be good to sit back and figure out the right questions to ask of it.

On the flip side, by the end of this next president’s term, Michael Phelps likely will swim in yet another Olympic Games. And if Americans choose unwisely come November, Phelps’ gold might be worth enough to topple the United States economy.

President Phelps. Oh yes, at that point he definitely would be the greatest Olympian of all time.

No question.

Photo: Wired

Amy Bass, “Lunch With a Hero”

I was sitting at the Carnegie with Tommie Smith and his wife Delois. Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meters at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, and then made history when he and teammate John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during the victory ceremony that followed. Their action – and the movement behind it, the Olympic Project for Human Rights – was the focus of my doctoral dissertation, Flag on the Field , and my first book, Not the Triumph but the Struggle . People often assume that I know Smith well, but this lunch was actually the first time I’d ever spoken to him.

Why? I felt my work on Smith and the OPHR needed critical distance – it was about the representations and interpretations of black power, not an oral history of those who took part in black power actions. So I never interviewed him, contacted him, or met him. His story was one that had to be told, I knew, but I wanted it to be told by him, not by me. MORE