Michael Phelps: Man of Privilege

I’ve had as much fun as the next person watching Michael Phelps do the unthinkable in Beijing. But I think Saxon Baird at my other blog, Pushback, raises some really critical points when he reminds us that success and failure at the Olympics are not disconnected from economic or national privilege.

Michael Phelps just put on what was arguably the most spectacular exhibition of athleticism in Olympic history. Newspapers across the country have hailed him as possibly the greatest Olympian of all time. And while Phelps’ talent is undeniable, I can’t help but view his success as not just a demonstration of talent and hard work, but of resources and economic backing. Not to take away from Phelps’ historic Olympic success, but I have to ask: Would Phelps have done as well swimming for a country with fewer economic resources to support its athletes? I doubt it.

The top three medal winning countries as of today are China, the United States, and Russia. All of which are large, economically affluent countries. Australia, Germany, and France make up the fourth through six th spots. In the top 10 medal winners there are only three Asian countries, and none located in Africa or South America. The reason for this is clear: A country’s Olympic success directly correlates to the level of funding and the quality of training it can provide to its Olympic athletes.

I’ll add that Phelps’ success isn’t just about the economic resources of his country, but also about the resources of his family. Not everyone in the world could have the chance to train like he has, and neither could everyone in the United States. Phelps was lucky to be born to a family that could dedicate so much time and money to their son’s athletics.

This isn’t to take anything away from Michael Phelps’ success and athleticism, but I think it is important when we take part in these “if you believe in it, anything is possible” narratives that we also remember some things are more possible for certain people than they are for others.

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One Response

  1. Thanks! I glad you see my perspective. I wasn’t trying to hate on Phelps or even the Olympics–just noting some issues that sometimes make the Olympics feel problematic. Thanks for the reference!

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