Hello history! So who did you kiss on the lips? Won’t you tell us who you’ve chosen to love, whose name we shall remember, forever from this day? They say you chose that gangly Phelps kid who made a big splash in the pool. Of course he is a phenomenal swimmer and all that. He won more medals than he has fingers and toes and that’s more than you can say for many countries put together at the games. The record books would say it is him they saw you kissing. But what do record books know... They are just names and numbers. They don’t have heart or soul. Their blood cannot be stirred nor their souls set on fire by a blaze of Olympic glory.
But what of history then? Will she make an Olympian her own without him stirring her soul like no one else can? Did Michael Phelps really do it? Will history remind us of him with the same passion fifty years from now as the papers do today? Is he really the greatest Olympian of all time? I think the answer might lie with a woman who believes history kissed her first…
She’s old now, about 77, and lives in a little town called Semenovskoye in Russia. If you go there when the sun is out and the air is warm, you might find her tending to the vegetables in her garden. The veined freckled hands that pluck weeds with grace today once helped her vault into space at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. And by the time she tumbled, turned and somersaulted her way back to earth on her dainty little feet, she had around her neck a total of 18 Olympic medals across three Olympic events. She is Larissa Latynina - the woman whose record Michael Phelps broke to win the most medals in Olympic history. A record that stood for 48 years. “If you want to know the greatest of all time, the first thing you look at is how many medals they have won…”, she once told an interviewer, and today’s papers, as they hold up the ‘Phelpenomenon’ to the skies, would seem to suggest that she’s right.
Well, I say they are wrong! Larissa and Michael may have been kissed by fate, fortune and glory but definitely not by history. And history is not what sleeps in dusty books in musty libraries but what lives in memories which forever beat in the hearts of those that saw, in memories that made poets of sportswriters and in memories that make eloquent raconteurs of the most taciturn observers; memories that make you want to say, ‘I was there that day!’ Larissa was a great gymnast but was she a great Olympian? What makes an athlete a great Olympian?
Olga Korbut, who won only six medals in her time at the 1972 and 76 Summer Games shines far above Larissa even within the sport. She was the first gymnast to be inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, nearly a decade ahead of Larissa, and still rules the hearts of gymnastics fans, many of whom would be hard pressed to recognise Larissa the person behind the statistics. Larissa was coach of the Soviet gymnastics team when Olga went to compete at the ’72 games. Rumour has it that Larissa tried to keep the Belarussian Korbut out of the team and wanted an all Russian team instead. Korbut replied with two individual gold medals and became the star of the games. When asked who she thought was the greatest gymnast of all time, Olga replied “…to win medals (alone) is not the best. To win the hearts of people… That is best! I think I was good at that!”
In 1999, at the World Sports Awards of the Century, hosted in Vienna, Larissa was nominated as one of the contenders for Best Female Athlete. Here too she was pipped at the post by the greatest name in gymnastics, across genders - Nadia Comaneci. But Nadia had won a mere nine Olympic medals, just about half as many as Larissa. Greatness obviously wasn’t about the number of medals one had hauled across time.
And that’s only fair, for while gymnasts, fencers, swimmers and track athletes have the opportunity of winning multiple medals at each of the summer games, boxers, weight-lift ers, wrestlers, footballers and hockey players etc can win only one medal at best. But does that fact alone disqualify them from reaching for the tag of the greatst ever?
There had to be something else that charms history and immortalises a legacy. Victories make an athlete great but what, beyond a mere medal, makes an Olympian the greatest ever. It has to be an act of greatness that goes beyond the arena of the event, beyond even the grandeur of the Olympics and has to touch lives beyond mere sport.
Beyond medals but within the realm of the sport, it is records and longevity that establish the dominance of an individual over the sport. Records quantify the degree of excellence, even sporting greatness, and by that count, sure Michael Phelps is a great athlete. Even greater are names like Usain Bolt, Sergei Bubka, and the afore-mentioned Nadia Comaneci. They have dominated their sport with margins have stood for decades but does that alone make a great athlete a great Olympian? I think not. Records, not matter by what margin, are meant to be broken or set. Jim Hines, Shane Gould, Paavo Nurmi, Abebe Bikila, Vasily Alekseyev are all names of record breaking athletes, who stunned the world with their supremacy over their rivals and past records. But they are not the names we remember today as those who took their place in the starting blocks after them raced ahead of them as would those who follow the Bolts of today.
So if it isn’t records and it isn’t medals, then what is it that greatness seeks? What is it that makes a moment last forever, that makes it shine brighter than a pile of gold, bronze or silver It would have to be acts of glory that have made the Olympics what it has come to be… the greatest, and even today in respects, the purest prize in sport. The Olympics were envisioned as a glorious celebration of the human spirit, athletic excellence and national pride, relatively still far removed from the commercial machinations of other mainstream sports. The fact that commercial rewards eventually follow at least some of the winners is indeed welcome, but even here, the amount of money Usain Bolt might hope to make after his blaze of glory run in London will dwarf the combined earnings of a dozen archers, shooters and shuttlers put together. But that would not, even for a moment, taint the happiness or pride of the medal winning archers, shooters or shuttlers. Million dollar athletes like Roger Federer, LeBron James, Lance Armstrong and Lionel Messi have rubbed shoulders with little known champions from Burundi and the Bahamas, all in pursuit of the one thing that a Grand Slam tournament or an NBA or a LaLiga can’t bestow on these titans – an Olympic medal.
So the greatest Olympian in the history of the games, at least the summer games, would have to be the one who makes the Olympics what it is; the one who adds inches to the stature of the greatest sporting event in the history of man. And who is that man, or woman? Not Michael Phelps, nor Larrissa Latynina. Not Usain Bolt, nor Nadia Comaneci, no matter how spectacular their moments of glory. No not even Cassius Clay for making America a better place by chucking his prized medal into the Ohio river. No, not Fanny Blankers Koen, the ‘Flying Housewife’ who once and for all demolished the notion that a middle-aged (30 was definitely middle age in the 1940s where most countries were lucky to have an average life expectancy stretching beyond 55) mother of two could win Olympic medals and set records. And no, not even the truly great Jesse Owens, even though he did show up an American President (FDR) to be an even greater racist (in his home country, Olympic gold medalist Owens had to go up and down hotels in freight elevators to attend felicitation ceremonies because coloured folk weren’t allowed on ‘whites only’ lobby elevators) than Adolf Hitler (who was appalled at what he thought was a ‘near ape’ defeating his Aryan champions in sprints and jumps).
Nay, the honour of being kissed long and slow by dame history is one Olympian’s and one Olympian’s alone and that man is Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson. Teofilo Stevenson was a brilliant boxer, perhaps the best to have ever entered a ring, at least an amateur ring. At 20 years of age, he beat world beating heavyweights to win the gold medal in 1972, in Munich. Gold medals followed in Montreal and Moscow. A fourth Olympic medal would surely have been his in 1984 in Los Angeles if not for the Cuban boycott of the games. That same year, he beat the Olympic champion Tyrell Biggs for consolation and was World Champion in 1986. The ‘88 Games were also boycotted by Cuba and so at the age of 36, teofilo retired as one of only three boxers in history to have won three consecutive gold medals.
But that is not what makes him the greatest Olympian of all time.
What makes him the greatest is the fact that on five separate occasions, he had the opportunity to make millions of dollars by turning professional and each time he refused to take the bait. If he had signed on the dotted line, he would have been one of the richest sportsmen in the world and you wouldn’t have needed this column to hear of him, and he knew it all and yet he refused, each and every time.
Olympic champion Teofilo Stevenson’s house in Havana had no running water. Promoters were offering him mansions in Miami with swimming pools, gardens and a fleet of Cadillacs in the driveway but Teofilo didn’t want any of that. “What are a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me?” he’d say with a smile that would reiterate his happiness with his lot in life.
It is such men and women, and there are very few, who make Olympics what they are today. The event stands humbled in the presence of such a champion, such an Olympian. Teofilo Stevenson died just a few days ago, on 11th June 2012, aged 60. The world and the Olympic movement are poorer with his passing, but RIP Teofilo, for history shall not forget you, for no one kissed her the way you did, before, since or ever…