U is for Unbreakable

World records are only borrowed.

Lord Sebastian Coe, double gold and double silver medalist.
Florence Griffith Joyner, “Speed, elegance, beauty, femininity, suspicion.”

The idea of an unbreakable Olympic record may seem contradictory. As one announcer paraphrased Lord Coe, World records are borrowed, but medals are forever.

Yet there do seem to be some records that will never be broken, and others which seem to last a lifetime. As I near the alphabet in this A to Z Olympic Challenge, it’s time to celebrate these incredible achievements.

Twenty-Eight–Count ‘Em–Freakin’ Medals

*yawn* Oh, is Michael Phelps winning again? Bor-r-r-ing! I’m sick of hearing about Michael Phelps. You’re sick of hearing about him. Want to know why? Because he’s won more medals than anyone will ever get close to winning. I’ve disparaged it myself mentioning that he had opportunities to swim in so many different races, including relays. Which means he could beat everybody at everything, as good on a team as by himself. He even just missed out on a medal in Sydney 2000 at the tender age of 15.

In Athens, he was compared to Mark Spitz, so when he “missed” Spitz’s golds by one, the tagline was “he didn’t do it.” He did pass Spitz in Beijing, winning eight golds in his third Games, an incredible accomplishment that likely no one will match. Then he came back–two more times. Joining Carl Lewis and Al Oerter, he won gold for the fourth consecutive time in the 200m medley in Rio, making him untouchable for twelve years. Those records–all his records–will be untouchable forever.

Phelps with all the gold in his life. Photo from Sports Illustrated.

There was a long-time most medals recordholder before “Freaky Arms” Phelps. She was the GOAT in gymnastics. Today, Simone Biles is a great gymnast, demonstrating aspects of the sport that no one can touch right now. She’s been called the GOAT. But, with all due respect, Larysa Latynina is the Olympic Greatest of All Time. Her eighteen medals–nine golds–were rewarded over three Games. She won the all-around twice and just missed winning, with a silver the third time. I, for one, would love to see if Biles could make it to Tokyo and become the first American to win back-to-back all arounds. She’s not sure, at 23, if she can last through the postponement for a full five years. Imagine lasting a full eight years as Latynina did.

Kim Rhode, the only person who will ever medal on five continents. Photo from Getty Images.

Only Medalist on Five Continents

Since Phelps missed a medal in the Sydney Olympics, he doesn’t hold a record for individual medals in the most consecutive Games. That honor belongs to Kim Rhode, a sharpshooter from southern California. While there was a six-time medalist in sabre, Aladar Gereveich, his was with a team. Rhode holds the record for medaling in the most consecutive Olympic medals for any individual at the Summer Olympics.

What’s even more remarkable about Rhode is that (like Phelps) she’s had the versatility to cross disciplines. Shooting includes different events, such as trap, skeet, pistol, and rifle. Even trap and skeet, which both involve clay pigeon targets, require athletes to take different approaches. The Olympics have kept changing events in which women compete, which caused Rhode to move from double trap to skeet. They took her event away? Fine, she just won a medal in the next closest thing.

Six individual consecutive medals might be a record that someone else could surpass. However, Rhode won medals in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London, and Rio. In other words, North America, Australia, Europe, Asia, and South America. Five continents. That record will stand for years. The next three Games will be in Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Paris, which will sequence Europe twice. Only if the 2032 Games are held in Australia, and only if someone who won in Rio can then win a medal in every Olympics until then… but Brisbane would have to win their 2032 bid, which is a long shot. Rhode’s record as the first medalist on five continents will probably become the only medalist on five continents until… androids are competing in Games as watch from the moon.

Pretty Old, Especially When You’re Dead

I mentioned in the Rowing events that there was an unnamed cox, a boy pulled off the streets of Paris, who might be the youngest ever to compete. Speculation based on his height is that he was older than Dimitrios Loundras, who was ten in Athens in 1896. The IOC reset the minimum gymnast age to 16 because of horror stories of young gymnasts injured as the sport became more popular in the 1980s, so there will be no more 10-year-old gymnastis. However, age minimums are set by sport. Two pre-teens were scheduled to compete in Tokyo: Hend Zaza, an 11-year-old table tennis whiz from Syria, and 11/12-year-old British skateboarder, Sky Brown. However, with the postponement, both athletes will be a year older, practically ancient at 12 and 13. Perhaps there will be some other up-and-coming 9-year-old in their wake.

At the opposite end, the oldest competing Olympian was 72-year-old Oscar Swahn of Sweden, a shooter from 1920. Several athletes have also competed in their sixties and seventies in Dressage. Ian Millar competed in a record ten Games at Show Jumping. He would have competed in Rio but his horse had to undergo surgery. It’s going to be mighty hard for someone else to qualify over forty years since, after all, you don’t just show up to the Games on a lark, you have to win the spot. But maybe Sky Brown or Hend Zaza can last that long.

One resource on the Oldest Olympians adds the curious note:

If you include the art competitions (and some people do) and deceased people, then the oldest Olympic participant may be USA artist Winslow Homer who was a participant in the painting category at the 1932 Summer Games. He actually died in 1910, but if he was still alive he would have been 96 years, 157 days old when he competed.

From Topendsports

To me, somehow competing when you’re dead seems to defeat the purpose.

Lightning in a Bottle, Blazing on a Track

The world record for the long jump stood for 24 years. Bob Beamon leapt over 29 feet (8.9m), at the time almost two feet longer than anyone else had ever jumped. It was in 1968 Mexico City; it was at altitude, which benefited the jump. He flew through the air, quite literally. He jumped so far that the electronic measuring devices weren’t calibrated to detect the length, so they had to get out the old-fashioned measuring tape. His world record stood until Mike Powell surpassed it in 1991, but no one has passed that yet, nearly thirty years later. No one’s come close in the Olympic Games since.

Bob Beamon jumps 29 ft 2.5. Photo by Tony Duffy  /Allsport

Beamon’s jump has been likened to catching “lightning in a bottle,” that one-in-a-quintillion possibility when everything aligns to create a unique circumstance. Other than discounting the achievement due to the altitude, no one has cast aspersions on the event, just marveled at it.

The same isn’t said of another remarkable achievement in sport, the 10.49 100m time set by Florence Griffith Joyner, although it probably should be.

Flo Jo was known for her self-designed unusually-styled running suits, long hair and elegantly sculpted nails, and a fanatical devotion to training. When she took the track in Indianapolis at the Olympic Trials of 1988, she was a curiosity, but the previous times she posted hadn’t caught as much notice. She then set the world record of 10.49 seconds. Analysis since then has shown that it was probably wind-aided; the measuring device on the field was likely faulty. Flo Jo then blazed like an express train to clock the next two fastest times: 10.7 in the semi-finals and 10.61 in the finals. When she won the Olympic gold in Seoul that fall, it was with 10.54 and not win-aided. She obliterated the 200m time with 21.34 seconds.

The Seoul Games were where sprinter Ben Jonson was disqualified for drug use, and substance use was on the rise. While mandatory random drug testing had not been instituted, athletes were tested. Florence Griffith Joyner was specially tested at the Games, repeatedly, because the records she set at the Trials seemed impossible. The president of the IOC said in 1988, “We performed all possible and imaginable analyses on her. We never found anything. There should not be the slightest suspicion.”

Still, though there was no evidence of any kind of cheating, people brushed off her accomplishment. Her coach, Bob Kersee, bristled at the criticisms, saying she trained “like a man.” Her husband/athlete, Al Joyner, said she did leg curls at night for hours. People scoffed at the one-legged suits she wore, but perhaps they were more aerodynamic. In 2015, one official even proposed wiping out all world records that were set before the year 2000 because there must have been undetected hanky-panky going on. Without evidence, her achievement just still seems unthinkable. Of course, wiping out records would take out Mike Powell and Bob Beamon’s achievements.

Flo Jo died of an epileptic seizure less than ten years later. Sadly, her death brought up additional accusations of drug use. Still, no drugs were found in her system, and she had had seizures before. Moreover, since 1988, there have been dozens of sprinters who used performance-enhancing drugs whose efforts haven’t come close to her times. It seems less and less likely that drugs created the unachievable.

FloJo running like the wind at the Olympic Trials 1988. Photo from Youtube.

It seems to me that Flo Jo’s amazing running was a combination of elegance and speed which, like Bob Beamon’s jump, was lightning in a bottle. Rather than cast aspersions, I suggest we just marvel at Flo Jo, flying like the wind with no other human even close to her.

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