Eric Heiden

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Since it is only a short time until the winter Olympic games starts, I thought I’d post something about them, plus a cycling connection.

I saw this article over at the NBC Olympic website doing a list of the greatest US winter Olympic athletes of all time. The list is completely out of order. They have Eric Heiden listed as the 9th “greatest” US winter Olympian. That is so wrong.

Here’s how the guys at NBC define greatness – How do you define greatness? There is the quantitative approach, which in sports means adding up personal statistics, victories and, in the case of the Olympics, medals. That is the first criteria used to build this list. But to define success only by the accretion of Olympic hardware would omit athletes whose impacts can not be easily quantified because they compete in sports, such as figure skating, with fewer events or in which the effective career of an athlete is far shorter. Cultural impact matters too; Dorothy Hamill, for instance, won only one gold medal but inspired a generation of girls to try to follow in her footsteps. So the second criteria for this list is the imprint the athlete left on history in other, less tangible ways. Using those two criteria, these are our choice for the 19 greatest U.S. Winter Olympians.

Eric Heiden did something in 1980 that will never be repeated in all of sport. He won every event in his sport in the Olympic Games. 5 events and 5 gold medals. It was equivalent in running of winning the 100 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters, mile, and 10 K. Or in cycling, winning the sprints, kilo, pursuit, time trial and road race. I’ll state it again, it will never be repeated. It was phenomenal.

Of the 8 athletes ahead of Eric, nearly all are skaters. Mainly figure skaters. But, just adding insult, there are 3 speed skaters, that NBC has deemed greater winter athletes than Eric. I’d bet you a million dollars if you polled all Olympic speed skaters and asked them who the greatest speed skater of all time was, it would be unanimous – Eric Heiden. That says a lot.

In NBC’s greatness definition, it doesn’t say anything about what the athlete went out and accomplished after the Olympics. Eric retired from speed skating after the Olympics and immediately took up cycling. He went on to win the Professional National Road Championships and ride the Tour de France. He then went to medical school and became an orthopedic surgeon. Kind of an over achiever, huh?

There is an online poll where you can vote. I think Bonnie Blair is leading Eric in this. If you want to go vote, click here.

It is so weird that guys are already road racing throughout the world, Australia, Argentina, etc. and the cyclocross worlds are still a couple weeks away. All the while, we’ll be able to enjoy watching the Winter Olympics. Sports – 24/7.

1980 Eric Heiden on his way to Olympic history.

1980 Eric Heiden on his way to Olympic history.

Dr. Eric Heiden, couple years ago, fixing my hand.

Dr. Eric Heiden, couple years ago, fixing my hand.

17 thoughts on “Eric Heiden

  1. KevinK

    One of the most remarkable, most ignored, achievements in sports history. Period. And that Olympics is only remembered for the “miracle on ice.”

  2. scott

    Heiden has been a remarkable presence in every field he’s ever entered. That he’s not at the top of the list of American winter Olympians, let alone speed skaters, speaks volumes of the list makers.

  3. spinner

    Good post. Eric has never gotten the respect he deserves. There is NO current skater that can come anywhere hear to winning sprints, middle, and long distance races in the SAME Olympics.

    In cycling, Patrick Sercu came close to being able to win at all distances road and track….

    Good riding!

  4. Lionel

    You should probably also mention that when Eric accomplished his feat, that Speed Skating in his own country was practically unknown. He could escape his rock star status in Europe where he competed just by coming home.

  5. John

    Just placed my vote for Eric Heiden….I agree with you.

    As a snowboarder, I have to say Shaun White belongs on that list. Not only is he one of the best skaters in the world, he could have been a pro surfer. Comparing these guys in different disciplines is really hard. The hours they all put in to their chosen sport is mind blowing.

    I think the age of the voters will determine the outcome…my mom would have chosen Dorothy Hamil.

  6. Christine

    Heiden was and remains HUMBLE – a quality that elevates his accomplishments. Enjoyed this post!

  7. Rich W.

    Umm…I think the article lists the athletes in alphabetical order, as opposed to ranking them.

  8. Jeremy

    Eric grew up in Shorewood Hills, a small village located on the westerly edge of Madison, Wi. Son of a very accomplished athlete and orthopedic surgeon father, Eric had a wonderful role model to emulate. As stated by others, his accomplishments will never be surpassed.

  9. Brian Price

    It also bothers me that so many of those ranked above Eric are modern professionals who have much greater latitude earning a living between Olympics. You have to wonder if he could have repeated if they had allowed professionals to continue to compete. NBC seems to have placed a heavy weight on Olympic career longevity while discounting the impact of the changes allowing professionals in 1992. Instead Heiden chose cycling and built a career in sports other than speed skating. Could not agree more, they missed the mark.

  10. Jordan

    My homer vote goes to Bonnie Blair. She attended 4 Olympics in 12 years and won gold in 3 of them.
    She wasn’t rich, but had great family and local support in central Illinois. Nothing was handed to her. If she has to follow Heiden, I am sure she will be ok with that.


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