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Greatest Olympians: Don't Forget Eric Heiden

timv's picture

Noticed a link to this editorial in the "Speedskating" sidebar:

Published August 25, 2008 10:30 pm - Heiden's accomplishment merits discussion in greatest-ever debate

EDITORIAL: Famed Lake Placid Olympian Eric Heiden overshadowed by Michael Phelps

[...]Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Pavo Nurmi, Bjorn Dahlie and Mark Spitz among others, have all been mentioned as those Phelps has surely surpassed.

One name is confoundingly omitted from the discussion. And that name is one North Country Olympic buffs surely will remember -- Eric Heiden.

Heiden turned in one of the most amazing performances in Olympic history when he won five gold medals at the Winter Games in Lake Placid in 1980.

He won all five of the speedskating events that were held at the time; the 500-, 1,000-, 1,500-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter races, shattering the 10,000-meter record.

What made Heiden's feat so impressive was that it was done at all of the distances practiced in the sport.

That's quite a feat! Heiden is quoted as saying recently that, "If you have a good stride and are efficient, you can compete in the sprints. To do well in the distance events is all a matter of how hard you want to work."

OK, I guess that's true, but it seems like more people than just him would have done it if that's all there was to it!


Lake Placid, New York
United States
44° 16' 51.708" N, 73° 58' 54.0696" W


MikeB's picture

and let's not forget.....

possibly one of the greatest Olympians of all time.......Inlinius of Crete who soundly defeated the Athenian champion Bontnos. Those were the days. ;-)
roadskater's picture

Sweeping the Solo Events Might Be the Best Test

There's no way of course to compare but that doesn't stop the announcers from comparing. Worse yet, I noticed this time especially that they were asking the athletes what this meant, asking them to assess their own greatness, to compare things they had no historical context for, and more. Of course the media savvy athletes knew not to take the bait, but it was disappointing to hear the fishing expedition from ill prepared microphone toters, whose only advantage was being old! When you're old, at least you can bring your knowledge and experience to bear! Ha! Swimmers have it easier than most I guess, in terms of grabbing multiple medals and having tons of events. Those poor rhythmic synchronized pole dancers have too few events to participate in to ever be called the greatest, no matter how limber. Of course, it didn't stop Cassius Clay from becoming Muhammad Ali and calling himself "The Greatest." Phelps' accomplishments certainly are impressive, but I'd say so were Bolt's! Whether they were equal, who knows. But Heiden's accomplishments certainly stand out, and on the ice, especially, how precariously those races must have been won. And anyone who can win the shortest sprint and the longest endurance tests, all in such a short span of time, certainly must be held up among the very best, and not devalued because of it being a winter sport or because there were not more medals to win in that sport. Thanks for the reminder of such an incredible set of golds.
MikeB's picture

speed vs. endurance

That's a great point Blake. Heiden won the sprints and races like the 10,000 meter and all in the same Olympics. Sometimes we here about an athletes muscle fibers (fast twitch versus slow) and how genetics and years of training mold these fibers, in turn making world class athletes either great in speed OR stamina, but usually not both. Heiden did both and that is truly amazing. Imagine Usain Bolt in a 10,000 meter race, or a marathoner in a 100m sprint. It just wouldn't be possible to win at that competitive level in two wildly different events.
roadskater's picture

Can Bolt Extend His WInning Distances Upward?

Looking at Bolt run, especially his height and power to weight and all that, he was considered an unlikely candidate for 100 meters as I hear it. I wonder what is the longest distance Bolt could win at in Olys or World Championships? I'm silly enough to think he might be able to win up to 800 meters or 1500 (is that what they do as a "metric mile" instead of doing four laps or 1600 meters?). I could see him doing well at 10K but maybe not world level, and marathon, well I think that's definitely proven to be more of a gravity sport than, say 100 meters. Oh I guess that makes a point I had not thought of in skating in that it's perhaps not just power to weight but application of power over time to weight ratio...Scrawnies should do way better over the longest distances. But how does that change over hills I wonder?
roadskater's picture

Heiden Interview About Book

Here's quote from a brief interview with Eric Heiden who has a book out, and has moved to Utah to share medical directorship of USA Cycling and to be near the Olympic speedskating scene:

[Q:] A lot is genetics, right? But you note that 15 to 20 percent of muscle fibers are available to transfer from one type (slow twitch for endurance) to another (fast-twitch for speed). With proper training, can you improve on genetics?

[A:] Some people may have a good aerobic engine. Some may have a good anaerobic engine. The key is to maximize the potential of that individual. Suppose you want to be a good endurance runner. Say you don't have the best aerobic capacity, but you can challenge other parts of your engine to make up for that to be more competitive. The book allows you to identify your abilities and work with what you've got.

eebee's picture

Young European Athletes?

I wonder how Heiden arrived at this conclusion...

Will this help steer younger athletes toward the right sport for them?

It happens a lot in Europe. They don't have the pool of athletes to choose from, like in the U.S. They identify kids at a young age with potential. We in America have thousands of athletes who get run through a common program and some guys will do well, but the majority probably won't reach their potential. But we have such vast numbers that it doesn't matter.

I'm hoping he means that in Europe the kids don't have the abundance of rec and other sports programs like they have here in the States, and not that kids are naturally more athletic here in the US than in Europe. I guess Heiden didn't achieve all that success by being humble though. 

I love how the writer opens the article:

 "Just because he is the most celebrated Olympian ever in speed skating and a former Tour de France cyclist and an orthopedic surgeon training world-class athletes, that does not mean Eric Heiden can't relate to the rest of us."


roadskater's picture

Don't Think He Means USAmericans More Athletic

I think he was saying we haven't done as well in the USA at identifying specific skills and genetic advantages of each individual at an early age, then putting these specifically-gifted ones into training for the sports that make the most of their pre-existing capabilities and acquired or natural skills. We certainly DO put kids in to generic sports programs at very early ages, including traveling teams and such, but not necessarily as a result of an organized and "scientific" process of measurement and evaluation...more based perhaps (and he's not saying this) on what sport the parents wish they had done better at as kids (no not always)! He's trying to sell a book and a set of ideas by saying the European nations make more of the existing potential than the USA does, and that the only reason the USA does as well is we have such "vast numbers" of people to draw from. I believe he is saying that the percentage of talented or gifted people is the same, but there are a lot more people in the USA than in one European country. I believe he is also saying that we should be dominating even more based on our numbers advantage, and if we follow his ideas, we'll win more gold, silver and bronze. Interesting that he avoids mentioning the vast numbers and specific programs in China. You can tell he thinks he's the best Olympian of all time, I think!

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