Michael Phelps Breaks Olympic Medal Record; Greatest Olympian Ever?

Michael Phelps today won his 18th and 19th Olympic medal, breaking the old record held by gymnast Larysa Latynina. Does this make him the greatest ever?

Michael Phelps today won his 18th and 19th Olympic medal, breaking the old record held by gymnast Larysa Latynina. Does this make him the greatest ever?

WSJ (“Phelps Breaks Olympic Record With Two Medals“):

Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic athlete in history Tuesday night, winning two medals to raise his all-time total to 19 and join the company of the world’s best all-time performers.

Phelps tied the previous record of 18, held by gymnast Larysa Latynina of the former Soviet Union, by winning silver in the 200-meter butterfly. He broke the record by swimming the anchor leg of the 4-by-200-meter relay, in which the U.S. team took the gold.

Phelps won his medals over three Games—2004, 2008 and 2012—and swam in the 2000 Olympics without winning a medal. He won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a record for a single Olympics, surpassing American Mark Spitz’s seven golds won at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

Phelps entered the London Games with 16 medals but had a rocky—for him—start. He finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley after winning the event the past two Games, losing to American rival Ryan Lochte. Phelps won silver on Sunday as part of the 4-by-100-meter relay team, finishing behind France.

Phelps will swim a total of seven events in the London Games.

“Medals” are by no means equal. While Phelps is just one ahead of Latynina in “medals,” he blows her away in golds:

This doesn’t, however, definitively answer the question “Is Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian ever?” Indeed, Steve Verdon and I discussed this very question a quadrennial ago and I argued:

Phelps has been truly remarkable.  He’s certainly in the “Greatest Olympian of All Time” conversation.  He’s absolutely dominated his sport over two Olympiads and swimming in so many events in rapid succession against, in many cases, athletes specializing in one event and thus not nearly as fatigued, makes his achievement that much more remarkable.

On the other hand, the medal count isn’t dispositive.  Swimming is the only Olympic sport where it’s possible to win so many medals.

The great Al Oerter won gold in discus in four consecutive Olympiads — a span of 16 years — and set world records each time.  But there’s only one gold per Olympiad in that sport.

Carl Lewis was dominant in sprints and the long jump in three Olympiads and still didn’t achieve Phelps’ medal count.

And then there’s Eric Heiden, who won five golds in speed skating in the 1980 Lake Placid winter games.  Not only was that every single medal in his sport, but he dominated both the sprints and the distance races, winning at 500, 1000, 1500, 5000, and 10000 meters.  That’s the equivalent of winning the 100 meter dash and the 10k in sprinting, which is simply unthinkable.

None of this is to take anything away from Phelps.  It’s just worth noting that others are at least in the conversation for Best of All Time.

Obviously, by adding to his total in a third Olympiad helps strengthen his case, showing dominance over time. Then again, Mangiarotti won his medals over five Olympiads–albeit in a sport that’s much less physically demanding.

Given the variables involved, there’s really no definitive answer possible to the question. It’s probably not even a fair question, in that Phelps is an all-time great whether he’s the all-time great and there’s no reason to take any of his hard-won glory from him. On the other hand, rushing to declare him the best ever diminishes others who have arguably accomplished just as much.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. It’s kind of difficult, I think, to make comparisons across sports disciplines that don’t necessarily have much in common. Fencing and swimming, for example, are two very different sports, and the same goes for men’s and women’s gymnastics, especially since those last two sports are scored based on subjective opinions of judges rather than something objective like who swam the 200m Butterfly the fastest.

    At the very least it’s fair to say that Phelps is the greatest swimmer in Olympic history and that’s quite an accomplishment. He’s still got a few events left, so we’re likely to see him add to this medal total and I think it’s going to be a long time before anyone comes close to equaling it.

  2. Damon Payne says:

    I don’t want to take anything away from Phelps’s accomplishment, but my first thought on hearing this was that I really, truly, hope he’s legit. The number of doping allegations flying around towards other famous athletes is a little black mark of doubt every time we see something awesome like this.

  3. Damon,

    For all of the Olympiads that Phelps has participated in, there are pre-game doping tests and each medal winner is required to take a post-race test and will have the medal revoked if they test positive. The tests have become more wide ranging every four years. If he’s cheated, I would’ve thought they’d discover it by now.

  4. Damon Payne says:

    Doug, I tend to agree, I was merely stating that seeing an individual achievement like this should be a 100% stand up and applaud effort affair and its too bad the moment was tainted for me by other current events.

    On a lighter note, I’m reminded of this classic by The Onion http://www.theonion.com/articles/michael-phelps-winks-mischievously-after-setting-o,10054/

  5. The Colourfield says:

    Carl Lewis was a doper so take him out of the equation.

  6. de stijl says:

    A case could be made for Bob Beamon based upon the endurance of his long jump record, but actually Jesse Owens 1936 long jump record lasted two years longer than Beamon’s.

    Jesse Owens was also involved with some other stuff in the ’36 Olympics, too; really too unimportant to mention here.

  7. Rob Prather says:

    Greatest ever is beside the point, to me. He has won more medals than anyone else and is certainly among the greatest ever. That’s good enough for me.

  8. Rob,

    I tend to agree. One wonders what Phelps will do after this. He’s already said this will be his last Olympics so that’s not an option. The dude is 27 years old and he’s already at the point where he has to figure out what to do in “retirement.”

  9. Tillman says:

    God, he is going to do so much weed after this Olympics.

    Presumably by himself with no cameras around.

  10. I forget where I saw it, but one person pointed out that part of the reason Phelps has so many medals is that swimming has too many events that are minor variations of each other. If it was like track and field it would be like having seperate medals for “running 100 meters”, “running 100 meters carrying a baton”, “running 100 meters with your hands in the air”, “running 100 meters carrying a baton and your hands in the air”, etc.

  11. @Stormy Dragon:

    The swimming events are all variations on distance and swimming technique. Additionally, several of the Olympic swimming events are what’s called an “individual medley” meaning that you must swim three different strokes (Butterfly, Backstroke, and Breastsroke). Each of these swimming techniques imposes their own physical demands, so it’s a lot more than “running 100m” and then “running 200m”

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The dude is 27 years old and he’s already at the point where he has to figure out what to do in “retirement.”

    I am twice his age and can’t figure a way to retire…..

    Just a Union carpenter who has put way more abuse on his body than Michael Phelps ever dreamed of. 7 years ago I thought nothing of hanging 3-4,000 sq ft of drywall per day. I can not do it any more.

    I am supposed to feel empathy for Michael Phelps?

  13. @Doug Mataconis:

    Yeah, but name another sport where different “techniques” are considered completely separate events? Ski jumpers are expected to compete together whether they are parallel ski or flying V. High jumpers compete together whether they use the straddle or the Frosbury Flop. Why do we need four different 100m swimming events depending on what stroke they use?

  14. Rob Prather says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I’m curious about that myself. He will be able to do advertising for a while, but that will run out eventually. I can see him having no trouble getting a job as a swimming coach, perhaps for the Olympic team.

  15. Stormy,

    Have you ever actually experienced the difference between swimming the length of an Olympic size pool doing a breaststroke vs a butterfly or backstroke?

  16. PJ says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Additionally, several of the Olympic swimming events are what’s called an “individual medley” meaning that you must swim three different strokes (Butterfly, Backstroke, and Breastsroke).

    Have you ever actually experienced the difference between swimming the length of an Olympic size pool doing a breaststroke vs a butterfly or backstroke?

    It is four different strokes, you forgot the freestyle.
    Phelps has 9 individual medals, 5 in butterfly, 2 in freestyle and 4 in medley.
    So, his best stroke is the butterfly, and that and his freestyle, while not as good as his butterfly, but obviously good enough to win him two medals, may be good enough to compensate for his breaststroke and backstroke to win medals in medley.

    And then there’s also team events, had Phelps been born in Canada, he would not have won 8 medals in team events. (He still has more individual medals than any other Olympian though.)

    And eight of his medals were won during the LZR Racer era.

  17. de stijl says:

    @PJ:

    He wasn’t the only one using the LZR suit. The suit helped him swim faster – like his competitors; it didn’t help him win more medals than he would have otherwise.

  18. @Doug Mataconis:

    Have you ever actually experienced the difference between swimming the length of an Olympic size pool doing a breaststroke vs a butterfly or backstroke?

    Have you ever experienced the difference between running the length of an Olympic size track with your arms tied behind your back vs holding them over your head or carrying a basketball?

    Again, it’s not clear why different methods of accomplishing the same task (moving through the water as fast as possible) should be sepparate events anymore than different methods of ski jumping or high jumping are.

  19. de stijl says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Again, it’s not clear why different methods of accomplishing the same task (moving through the water as fast as possible) should be sepparate events anymore than different methods of ski jumping or high jumping are.

    Think about speed walking vs. running.

  20. Tim says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Just give it up already man! The horse is dead. Stop trying to beat it with invalid comparisons! 🙂

  21. PJ says:

    @de stijl:

    Think about speed walking vs. running.

    Racewalking aka running without getting caught.

    Who can forget about the medley gold that Carl Lewis won in 1984 (100 meter running, 100 meter racewalking, 100 meter backwards walking, and 100 meter on stilts).
    Magic moment.

    😉

  22. london says:

    Indeed greatest achievement for real sports person for getting highest records. Congrats Phelps keep doing.

  23. Unkind says:

    I know it seems everyone alive is complaining about these events being delayed, but some of us do actually work in offices all day long with no access to the TV and outdated computers/browsers that can’t handle live streaming. Not spoiling the results in the title of the post would have been appreciated.

  24. Jim Thorpe.

    End of discussion.

    Because he was Jim Flippin’ Thorpe.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @Donald Sensing: Thorpe was arguably the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century; he’d get my vote. But he only won two Olympic medals in a single Games. I don’t see how he’s even in the discussion.

    What’s interesting is that his amazing performances in 1912 was eventually overshadowed by women. Florence Griffith-Joyner and other great female pentathletes of modern times are actually faster and stronger than Thorpe.

  26. al-Ameda says:

    The great Al Oerter won gold in discus in four consecutive Olympiads — a span of 16 years — and set world records each time. But there’s only one gold per Olympiad in that sport.

    Carl Lewis was dominant in sprints and the long jump in three Olympiads and still didn’t achieve Phelps’ medal count.

    And then there’s Eric Heiden, who won five golds in speed skating in the 1980 Lake Placid winter games. Not only was that every single medal in his sport, but he dominated both the sprints and the distance races, winning at 500, 1000, 1500, 5000, and 10000 meters. That’s the equivalent of winning the 100 meter dash and the 10k in sprinting, which is simply unthinkable.

    I’d have to put Phelps in with those above 3 athletes, although, as you mentioned, Swimming has so many medal events.

  27. @James Joyner:
    “Thorpe was arguably the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century; he’d get my vote. But he only won two Olympic medals in a single Games. I don’t see how he’s even in the discussion.”

    James, what part of, “Because he’s Jim Flipping Thorpe” don’t you understand?

  28. Pylon says:

    May I toss in a mention of Clara Hughes. The only person to ever win multiple medals in both summer and winter games.

  29. Seb Barker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Greatest swimmer – probably. Greatest olympian – no.

  30. Song says:

    Greatest Olympian Ever ? Short Answer YES!

    Assume 2012 would be his last Olympic. He would have 22 medals. Which make him the most gold medals holder of all-time.

    So to win a 22medals (18 are golds) which is a big deal. I think it is how well the Olympian overcome his/her perform during the race. As in swimming even .01 second would make a different.

    My other thought I want to argue that Swimming/Running give out so many awards. So the next greatest Olympian in 2016 would be Running or Swimming. So if country want to dominate in Medal. Just train their athlete on Swimming/Running.