Who is the greatest Olympian?

Story highlights

  • The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are now at the halfway mark.
  • Amy Bass: These Games have raised a host of issues around politics, competition and definitions of greatness in sportsmanship.

Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, has written widely on the cultural history of sports, including the book "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete." As the supervisor of NBC's Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)After months, if not years, of catastrophic predictions for the Olympic Games in Rio, the halfway mark has come and gone. Competition has brought some stunning upsets, such as the elimination of the U.S. women's soccer team by Sweden 4-3 in penalties -- the first penalty shootout in Olympic women's soccer history.

Amy Bass
But looking ahead to the next week of competition, there are some key things to reflect upon:
The Olympics do not transcend politics: While the Olympic charter emphasizes universality and neutrality, the Rio Games have been marked by their acutely political moments. From the entrance of the refugee team at the Opening Ceremony to the refusal of an Egyptian judoka to shake his Israeli opponent's hand, the Olympics are inherently political.
    When Simone Manuel became the surprise gold medalist in the 100m freestyle, the significance of the first African-American woman to win Olympic gold in the pool almost rendered NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines speechless. But Manuel, who will leave Rio with two golds and two silvers, had all the right words, acknowledging the "whole bunch of people" that came before her and expressing her want to serve as an inspiration for those to come.
    And from beach volleyball, a photo of Egypt's Nada Meawad and Doaa Elghobashy playing German duo Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst, went viral. The Egyptians' long sleeves and leggings along with their covered heads stood in stark contrast to the Germans' more traditional beach volleyball uniform: the rather skimpy two-piece. By relaxing the uniform requirements of the sport, the Federation Internationale de Volleyball opened the door for more athletes to participate and for the world to see the many styles powerful women sport on the beach.
    Greatness has multiple definitions: The word "great" has been thrown around a lot at the Rio Olympics. Michael Phelps, to be sure, wears the moniker above all others, with his collection of 28 total medals, 23 of which are gold. American Kim Rhode's bronze medal in women's skeet made her the first summer Olympian to win an individual medal in six consecutive Games -- and the first athlete to ever win an Olympic medal on five continents. Katie Ledecky's swim in the 800-meter freestyle, in which she broke her own world record again, shows how she is only competing against herself. But sometimes greatness comes with just one medal. When Fiji crushed Great Britain 43-7 for rugby gold, it brought the tiny island nation its very first Olympic medal. By any measure, the reaction of the folks back home made clear who the greatest team in Rio is.
    Ledecky crushes rivals, wins gold medal
    Ledecky crushes rivals, wins gold medal


      Ledecky crushes rivals, wins gold medal


    Ledecky crushes rivals, wins gold medal 01:44
    Age is just a number: Simone Biles wasn't old enough to compete at the London Olympics, biding her time by winning three world championships until Rio. For many athletes, however, age requirements are not a problem. American equestrian Phillip Dutton won a bronze medal in eventing just a month shy of his 53rd birthday. At 41 years of age, Uzbek gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, competing in her seventh Olympics, is the oldest woman to ever compete in Olympic gymnastics. Kristin Armstrong won her third consecutive gold medal in cycling's time trial the day before turning 43. And while many have talked about Michael Phelps' medal haul at age 31, teammate Anthony Ervin beats him in the age competition. Ervin tied for gold in the 50-meter freestyle in Sydney in 2000, retired, and then came back to finish fifth in London in 2012. His gold medal in Rio makes him the sport's oldest individual champion at the ripe old age of 35.
    It's all about teammates, rivalries and friendships: Much has been made about U.S. swimming legends Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte bunking together at the Athletes Village in Rio. The self-assigned old men of the team, the two have traded 200-meter individual medley titles for longer than some of their opponents have been swimming. In gymnastics, Simone Biles and Aly Raisman went from winning the women's team title together, to competing against one another in the women's all-around competition.
    But perhaps the most can be learned from rivalries that transcend the individual and consume a nation. When Argentina marched into Maracana Stadium, the host country fans booed their neighborhood rival.
    But it's all in good competitive spirit, exemplified on the basketball court when Brazil's Marcelo Huertas and Argentina's Luis Scola urged fans before the game to respect one another in the name of Olympic spirit. Argentina won, 111-107, a thrilling game with double-overtime, and the rivalry lives to see another day.
    Every Olympics has its problems: If Sochi is remembered for stray dogs, Rio might be remembered for the day the water in the diving pool turned green. Not good green, a bad, murky, "uh oh" kind of green. Compared to the catalogue of catastrophic predictions in the lead-up to these Games, that might be OK. Rio has suffered from some typical Olympic problems, such as empty seats at the venues, long lines, and uncooperative weather. But there has also been a range of problems, such as an attack on the media bus, the mugging of Ryan Lochte and the death of an Olympic security guard who took a wrong turn and ended up in a dangerous slum. John Coates, vice president of the International Olympic Committee, told the BBC, "This has been the most difficult Games we have ever encountered."
    Looking ahead at the week to come, Rio's organizers can only hope that with swim competitions complete, the seats at track and field will fill and the beach volleyball venue continues to attract partygoers. And when the flame is extinguished next Sunday and the world's athletes go back to their respective corners, will anyone remember the day that the diving pool turned green?