Phelps is now the most decorated Olympian in history. But is he the greatest? (Al Bello/Getty Images)And he still has four races to swim.
Phelps has claimed 19 Olympic medals, 15 of them gold. Now, sports columnists are debating whether Phelps, as well as being the most decorated Olympian, is the greatest Olympian ever.
For Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber, "it's beyond dispute."
"Phelps has won 19 medals, a record 15 of them gold, including this swim in the 4x200 free relay. Game, set and -- pretty much -- match. There is no 'yes, but,' capable of sustaining prolonged debate," he wrote.
It's true that there are now 148 countries that have won fewer Olympic medals than Phelps has, as Foreign Policy magazine points out. He has the same number of medals as Georgia (the country, not the state) although 11 of Georgia's medals are bronze.
If Phelps were a country, he'd have more gold medals than Mexico.
Phelps won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics alone, breaking the record of another American swimmer, Mark Spitz.
It seems pretty open-and-shut, doesn't it? Not so, says the Telegraph's Robert Colville.
"In his Telegraph column today, Sir Steve Redgrave - another possible GOAT (Greatest Olympian of All Time) - points out, not unfairly, that Phelps had the luxury of competing in a sport that lavishes the best athletes with more medals than any other. Also, wouldn't his achievement have been more impressive if, like Redgrave's, it had been spread out over a few more Olympics, showing he'd remained world-class for longer?" he wrote.
There are other caveats on Phelps's medals that both Colville and Farber point out. Of the 15 gold medals he won, "only" nine are in individual events, although that total, too, is an Olympic record.
But beyond that, Colville says that singling out any one Olympian as the greatest ever is impossible because of the huge differences in sports, in athletes and in history.
"The point - and the glory - of the Olympics is that it celebrates every possible variety of sporting achievement. To make comparative judgments about this great big cornucopia of excellence, you're not just comparing apples and oranges - you're comparing apples to oranges to durians to gooseberries to Cadbury's Dairy Milk," he says.
Both columnists mention other athletes that could as easily be named the greatest ever Olympian, including:
- Paavo Nurmi of Finland won nine gold medals and three silver in the 1920s in middle-distance running. His Olympic career was cut short when Swedish officials questioned his amateur status because he received money for travel expenses while touring the U.S.
- Jesse Owens competed in the Olympics just once, but it was one for the history books. The African American won four gold medals at the Berlin games in Nazi Germany in 1936. Hitler had intended for these Games to be proof of his ideals of Aryan superiority.
- Larisa Latynina, the Soviet gymnast who competed in the 1950s and '60s. She won 18 medals and she retains the title of most Olympic medals in individual competition with 14.
- Mark Spitz swam in Mexico City in 1968 and Munich in 1972, winning nine Olympic golds, as well as a silver and a bronze. He set world records in every event he competed in Munich. Spitz retired from swimming at 22, "traumatized by the terrorist atrocity that blighted the Munich Games," says Colville.
- Nadia Comeneci may have won just nine Olympic medals in her two Games in 1976 and 1980, but the Romanian was the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 in Olympic competition.
- Carl Lewis won 10 Olympic medals for the U.S., nine of them gold, in the 100 metres, 200 metres and long jump in the '80s and '90s. The International Olympic Committee named him "Sportsman of the Century," and Sports Illustrated called him "Olympian of the Century."
- Bjorn Daehlie of Norway is the most successful Winter Olympian of all time, winning 12 Olympic medals in cross-country skiing in the '90s.
- Clara Hughes is the only person to have won multiple Olympic medals in both the Winter and Summer Games. She won a gold medal, a silver and three bronze medals in speed skating in three Winter Olympics. She won two bronze medals in cycling in Atlanta and placed fifth in the time trial in London.
Do you think Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time? Do swimming have an unfair advantage in the medal count because they have so many events in which to compete? Let us know what you think.
(This survey is not scientific. Results are based on readers' responses.)
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