Phelps the Greatest Olympian? Yes – From the Bird’s Nest
Wednesday’s Bird’s Eye View (2-4pm on ESPN1420 and ESPN1420.com) had an interesting discussion.
Is Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian ever?
Phelps is certainly the most decorated. There’s no denying that.
While the discussion was going on, it reminded me of Pete Rose passing Ty Cobb on the all-time hits list. Someone asked Rose if he was the greatest hitter of all time. His response was interesting.
“I never said I was the greatest hitter. I said I’d have the most hits.”
To an extent, you can apply that to Phelps as well. His nineteen medals may never be surpassed. But, Phelps has had an opportunity to win more medals because of his sport. As a swimmer, Phelps has competed in as many as eight events in one Olympics. There are few sports where an Olympian has that kind of opportunity.
And, obviously, there’s the longevity issue.
Larissa Latynina was the record holder before Phelps, having won eighteen gymnastics gold medals between 1956-1964. Like Phelps, she had many opportunities, even more than gymnasts have today. But you won’t see a gymnast break the Phelps’ record. Gymnasts simplly don’t compete in three consecutive Olympics any more. Heck, nowadays a gymnast is washed up at 21.
Al Oerter won a gold medal in the discus in four straight Olympics. British rower Steve Redgrave won a gold in FIVE straight games.
Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field in a single Olympics. The political climate of that day would lead to many putting Owens at the top of the list of greatest Olympians.
Carl Lewis won ten medals in three Olympics and was named Sports Illustrated’s greatest Olympian of the 20th century, ahead of Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in a single Olympics.
When it comes down to the “greatest,” it’s all very subjective. And, really, no one’s opinion is wrong, because it’s that person’s opinion. Their opinion is based on the criteria they choose to use.
For me, the greatest Olympian is, indeed, Phelps.
And, early yesterday I didn’t feel that way.
Here’s what changed my mind.
Critics will say Phelps had more opportunity and they would be right. They would also point to the team gold medals Phelps has won and try to discredit him because of that.
Here’s what did it for me.
Phelps just didn’t win medals.
He won GOLD medals.
In the 19 times Phelps has won a medal, the color was golden.
That is, quite simply, the mark of excellence.
Only Lewis (nine gold, ten medals) had a higher percentage of gold. But Phelps, with one more medal, will have twice as many as Lewis, who also entered multiple events.
For me, that kind of consistency is what makes Phelps great.
In my opinion, the greatest.