Greatest Olympian Ever? Really?

Count ‘em.
Michael Phelps, golden boy: Sports Illustrated‘s latest cover

Swimmer Michael Phelps’s devastating performances at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics are literally the stuff of legend, now, with that sport’s meets done. As raves for his outstanding feats continue to pour in—eight gold medals in China, more than any other athlete ever at one Olympics, and fourteen golds total, when adding in his six Athens 2004 wins—the question is being raised everywhere that sports is debated: Is Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian ever?

That’s the question. Even Sports Illustrated is claiming this, at the top of their cover, above. (We’ll forget, for now, the hyperventilated nonsense on whether Phelps is the greatest athlete who has ever lived.) If you’re waiting for an unbiased answer from NBC’s journalists, keep it clear that their job is to hype ratings, and push copies of Michael Phelps: Greatest Olympic Champion…The Inside Story DVDs. No help there.

So thanks to Tim Dahlberg, at the Associated Press, for clarifying this issue with thoughtful reflection, and not the bobbleheaded cheerleading which assures, as if Americans were all idiots (!!), that the only Olympic sports and/or medal stands you’ll see on NBC are the ones Americans dominate.

So, Phelps: Greatest Olympian of all time?

Float like a bee…The answer to that is no.

Not until he wins even more in London [2012], or does something even more freaky, like pick up a gold in the triathlon.

OK, so maybe the idea of Phelps on a bike or taking a run after a swim is a bit far-fetched. The point is that swimming medals are so plentiful that it’s the only sport where someone can even think of winning more than a handful in any given Olympics.

As good as the U.S. basketball team is, the players will get only one medal when they finish off their Olympic run this week. And as awesome as Usain Bolt runs, the fastest man on the planet will go home to Jamaica with no more than three gold medals, for the 100 and 200 meters and the 400 relay.

Phelps was able to win eight golds in nine days because, yes, he’s the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time. It also helped that his toughest race came first in the 400 individual medley and he excelled in events that were spread out at just the right intervals.

But greatest Olympian ever? No.

Well, who, then, would Dahlberg put in that Numero Uno spot?

Leaving them in the dust….Give that nod to Carl Lewis, right, who won nine gold medals over four Olympics, including the long jump four games in a row. Unlike Phelps, Lewis won his medals doing two very different things, using his speed to win the 100 and 200 meters and his leaping ability for the long jump.

He likely would have had even more medals but the United States boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow where Lewis had qualified in the long jump and as a member of the 400 relay team.

“I don’t want to appear to be putting Phelps down,” said David Wallechinsky, the Olympic historian who has literally written the book on the games. “But I need a little more longevity to name him the best Olympian ever.”

The people at NBC would certainly debate that because they built the first week of the Olympics around Phelps’ quest for eight golds, scoring a ratings bonanza that will pale only to the endorsements Phelps will haul in after the games.

In summary:

My name is Paavo….Great swimmer, yes. Greatest swimmer ever, OK.

But no matter what NBC tries to tell you, it’s too early to declare him the greatest of all Olympians.

Other names Dahlberg puts forward for consideration: George Eyser and Paavo Nurmi, right. You’ve almost certainly never heard of them, because NBC probably doesn’t own the footage, and haven’t figured out how to sell you discs shot in b&w.



#1 Ray Winbush on 08.19.08 at 2:11 pm

Greatest Olympian ever: Jesse Owens winning four gold medals (not only in running but long jump as well a la Carl Lewis) in the 1936 Olympics in front of a crowd booing him, Adolph Hitler in the stands and death threats all around.

*That’s* pressure…

*That’s* performance…

*That’s* greatness…

Take it to the bank…

#2 giles on 08.19.08 at 4:02 pm

i know. he’s doing good at what he does. but come on.

#3 Dr. KJ on 08.19.08 at 6:30 pm

Thank God for some sanity on this issue. I think America is so starved for a “mainstream athlete” that Michael Phelps is being over hyped. Don’t get me wrong, the brother is bad. But lets wait to 2010 before he’s called the greatest ever.

#4 sirensongs on 08.20.08 at 2:40 am

I think it’s pathetic and small-minded that people have to argue about such a thing, at all. WHO CARES. They’re all great.

#5 sirensongs on 08.20.08 at 2:41 am

….and any one of us would be lucky to have lived half the lives of any of the above. Salute to them all.

#6 Liam on 08.21.08 at 9:41 pm

I think the point about swimming sports getting too many medals is a valid one. Then again, there are so many silly events in the Olympics, give me team sports anyday

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