Phelps: Greatest Athlete Ever?

By Chris Le

Michael Phelps, the face of these Beijing Olympics, has been the hottest topic of the past week. His quest to eclipse Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals has been the most captivating show in sports today, reaching the “must-watch” territory previously occupied by only Tiger Woods and LeBron James.

And Phelps hasn’t disappointed. Five events. Five gold medals. Five world-records.

To call this accomplishment amazing might be shortchanging him.   Since Phelps is so prolific and dominant, I think people lose perspective of how difficult it is to win one medal, let alone seven gold. But that’s the thing with all the greats: they alter perception. For an NBA analogy, guys like Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan—players who seemingly collect championship rings—make winning seem easy, almost common. But for every Duncan, Jordan and Russell there are hundreds like Tracy McGrady, Dominique Wilkins and Elgin Baylor—incredible talents who never had the fortune of capturing a title.  Phelps is in the Jordan category; he makes things look easy.

In other words, Phelps might be the most dominant athlete today alongside Tiger Woods. So, needless to say, I think Phelps has already exceeded the hype.

And yet I can’t help but cringe when sports writers and the general public proclaim Phelps to be the greatest athlete of all-time. Have these people forgotten about the aforementioned Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth and about fifteen other athletes of the past who qualify as the “G.O.A.T.”?

If there’s an epidemic in sports, it’s definitely our infatuation with the present. It never ceases to amaze me how easily we become prisoners of the moment, proceeding to fling around ridiculously audacious claims. It happens, unfortunately, all the time. We see Tiger Woods dominate and say he’s the best ever, even though he’s still four majors behind Jack Nicklaus. We see Kobe Bryant score 81 points and, assuredly, in our minds, he’s better than Jordan, right?

The same is happening with Phelps.

Now, I don’t want to come off as a hater. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. I’m rooting for Phelps. I hope he sweeps every event and shatters all records. But I’m hesitant to even call Phelps the greatest American Olympian, let alone the greatest athlete in history. I just don’t buy the argument that having the most gold medals ever equates to being the greatest ever.

Don’t get me wrong, Phelps is definitely in the conversation, but here are a few Olympians that can also lay claim to that title.

Mark Spitz – The man Phelps is still trying to reach. He was Michael Phelps before Michael Phelps. In the 1972 Olympics, Spitz won seven gold medals and set seven world records. In a four-year span from 1968 to 1972, Spitz set 33 (!) world records. And do you hear his name being thrown around with the likes of Jordan, the Babe, etc., in many “greatest athletes ever” conversations?  I didn’t think so. If Spitz doesn’t belong, neither does Phelps.

Carl Lewis – It’s unfortunate that my most indelible image of Lewis is his absolute butchery of the national anthem (see here). It’s a shame because he might’ve been the greatest U.S. track and field athlete ever. Lewis owns nine gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m and long jump over a span of four (yes, four!) different Olympic Games. It may come as a shock to many American sports fans, who absolutely love instant gratification, but there is something to be admired about longevity. In some ways, consistent excellence over an extended period of time may be more impressive than utter dominance in a short span.

Jim Thorpe – Phelps does one thing and does it better than anyone in the world: swim. But how do you compare Phelps to Jim Thorpe who, during the 1912 Stockholm games, won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon? Both events include the 100m sprint, 100m hurdles, 1500m, shot put, high jump, long jump, javelin, discus and shot put among others. No wonder decathletes are considered the best overall athletes in the world. In total, Thorpe won eight of the two competition’s 15 individual events. Oh yeah, Thorpe also played baseball in those 1912 games. And I’m not even mentioning his time in the NFL and professional baseball and basketball leagues.

Jesse Owens – Owens’ four gold medals (100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m) in the 1936 Berlin Olympics may seem paltry compared to Phelps’ five (possibly eight) in this year’s games, but you have to consider the circumstances. The Berlin Olympics were essentially an arena where Adolf Hitler and his crew could show to the world true Aryan supremacy. Well, Owens, an African-American, had other ideas and proceeded to shit on all of Hitler’s plans. Owens was more than an athlete; he was an icon and a national hero in a dark time of segregation. Phelps just can’t touch that.


8 responses to “Phelps: Greatest Athlete Ever?

  1. Greatest athlete or not, Phelps is remarkable. When most people say he’s the greatest, they just mean the greatest they know of. That seems kind of obvious after I say it, but recognizing that will remind you of the subjective nature of human praise. I praised Phelps by writing a short “song” about him. You can listen to it here:

  2. I like the title of “greatest Olympian ever” because after all, he does own the most career golds. Phelps is only 23 and can perceivably win 20 golds, hell the ceiling is limitless with this stud.

  3. Phelps maybe da greatest now but in 5 yrs lebron will be the best ever

  4. I think lebron james is the greatest athlete ever,team usa is just doin amazing with him on the court team usa can’t lose.

  5. LeBron might be the greatest athletic specimen I’ve ever seen, but he still has a lot to prove to earn the title as “greatest ever.”

  6. What happened to all the love for Kobe? Hahah. If LeBron wants to be the best ever, which I already know he won’t be, he’ll need to be winning championships and the MVP award ever year, at the least.

    Luis, LeBron was on the 2004 and 2006 U.S. team, where both received a bronze. Sadly, even Kobe was on the 2006 team, where they went 5-0 in the opening round before falling in the semis.

  7. I’ve just found this article, and you’d better be fucking joking.. Roger Federer is by far and away beyond Tiger Woods, whose records he spits on. How Woods can be considered and not Federer proves how much you know about non-American sportspeople.

  8. Geez. Look, the article was written in 2008, a year in which Nadal beat Federer in all four of their meetings. Nadal had also taken over the world’s number on spot. Could you have named Federer the world’s most dominant tennis player, let alone it’s most dominant athlete? Hell-to-the-no.

    Things may be different now, but I still back what I wrote in this article, at that time.

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