Phelps – Greatest Olympian?


(C) Telegraph

To reach the heights of an Olympian takes guts, courage and dedication that most of us can barely comprehend. In establishing the greatest Olympian, do you rank athletes on the medals won or the hours spent in the gym? How do you measure the sacrifices they’ve made or the transformation they’ve wrought? Michael Phelps has won 21 Olympic medals – more than anyone else in the entire history of the Olympics. Does this make him the greatest Olympian of all time?

In terms of medal count, Phelps’ accomplishment is among the most tangible because
it is beyond dispute. There are head-to-head races and timing devices, not opinions, in
Olympic pools. Unlike Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, whom Phelps leapfrogged with
his haul of medals, no judge has ever flashed a “9.6” for Phelps. Where such an evaluation

of greatest is based on medal count or continued supremacy, any attempt to determine this athlete is partly reduced to the hypothetical and unquantifiable.

Mark Spitz won his seven golds in Munich with world records in every event as opposed to all but one; Phelps won by only a fingernail in the 100m butterfly and depended partly on the heroics of Jason Lezak in one of the relays. Should Spitz not have retired at the age of 22, traumatised by the terrorist atrocity that blighted the Munich Games, how many more golds could he have won? Birgit Fischer won eight golds at six Olympics, but was forced to miss Los Angeles due to the Soviet bloc’s boycott. Jesse Owens was prevented by America’s sporting bureaucrats and the outbreak of the Second World War, from adding to his four golds at Berlin. Paavo Nurmi, winner of nine golds in the 1920s, was banned from the 1932 Olympics “for receiving a small amount of money in travel expenses” (and previously excluded from another event on health grounds).

Hypotheticals aside, Phelps also has the luxury of competing in a sport that has on
offer for its athletes, more medals than any other. It opens itself up to producing
multiple-medal winners by having categories for styles as well as distances. Surely his
achievement would have been more impressive if it had been spread out over a few more
Olympics, showing he’d remained world-class for longer. In addition, it cannot be denied
that swimming is not as global as track and field. (Neither Africa nor South America are
major players in the pool, despite the revival South Africa is having in London.) Carl
Lewis, a sprinter and long jumper, had to do more than one discipline to win his nine,
one of which came not on the track but in the doping control room after Ben Johnson was
disqualified in the 100 in Seoul.

In debating the greatest Olympian, we would do well to remember that the beauty of the
Olympics is that it celebrates every possible variety of sporting achievement. To make
comparative judgments about this great big profusion of excellence is to compare chalk and cheese.

Bradley Wiggins has won both on track and on road, his Tour de France triumph being
so qualitatively different as to resemble Phelps winning the 10km open-water swimming
in addition to the 50m freestyle. What about athletes such as Usain Bolt or Bob Beamon
who redefined the nature of human possibility – not just winning, but winning in such a
style that the scientists, statisticians and biomechanics went in search for an explanation.

Does greatest only extend to winning a medal or breaking a record? No. Greatest is Jesse Owens overcoming barriers of racial prejudice and reacting with dignity to the behaviour of the American sporting and political establishment at home on his return. Greatest is Cathy Freeman for coping with a nation that piled incredible expectation upon her shoulders, even getting her to light the Olympic torch, and finding a way to reconcile her Australian and Aboriginal identities in the process. Greatest, or indeed perfection, is Nadia Comeneci. Greatest is Tommie Smith and John Carlos for showing us that there are more important things in life than sport. Greatest is Eric the Eel and Hamadou Djibo Issaka (the rower from Niger) for proving that there is no shame in coming last. Greatest is the Jamaican bobsled team for redefining the boundaries of which countries play which sport.

Michael Phelps can undoubtedly be called the most decorated Olympian because of his record breaking medal count. However, describing Michael Phelps as the greatest Olympian is incorrect. Such a statement does a disservice to the athletes who have not only won medals and broken records, but have overcome prejudices and bridged political and racial divide to compete and achieve Olympic glory, paving the way for others to realise their Olympic dreams.


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