Michael Phelps the Greatest Olympic Athlete Ever?

Greatest Olympian ever?I am a fairly recent convert to the sport of swimming. I’ve gotten into it as my son has gotten more involved in the sport. Tonight Michael Phelps has become one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Olympians of all time by  becoming the only Olympian to win 13 gold medals over the course of his swimming career (6 in Athens in 2004 and so far 7 in 2008).

Tonight Phelps tied Mark Spitz’s record of 7 gold medals in a single Olympics and he still has the 4×100 medley relay where the Americans are so dominant that about the only way they won’t win gold is if they are disqualified during the event. Even more amazing, he’s has won 6 of his 7 gold medals in this Olympics in world record times.  Granted, the world records he has been breaking have been his own, but still an amazing feat.

UPDATE (James Joyner):  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.

UPDATE (James Joyner): Phelps got his 8th and final gold medal of the Games last night, swimming the second leg of the 4×100 Medley Relay, and his 7th world record of this Olympics, breaking Spitz’ immortal record.  It should be noted, in fairness to Spitz, that the 50 meter freestyle was not an Olympic event in 1972.  Spitz would almost certainly have won an 8th medal and set an 8th world record had he been presented with the opportunity.

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Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. dutchmarbel says:

    He is amazing. I’ve not seen all the matches, but in the ones I’ve seen he was so much stronger than the rest of the swimmers. Truelly impressive.

  2. just me says:

    Your point about medals is well taken.

    Although it is still very unusual for one man to enter all those events and race them in a single week and race them to wins each time.

    Very few swimmers are in a situation where it is possible to swim that many races, much less win them.

    One thing can be said of Phelps-sprinting is not his strong suit, which is one reason he has a lot of competition at the 100 level, but take the race past 100 and he tears up the field.

  3. Maybe if the Olympics had a 100 meter race on the track surface, another 100 meter race on grass, another 100 meter race on AstroTurf, and yet another 100 meter race on sand Carl Lewis would be were he deserves to be in the pantheon.

    In no way do I wish to diminish Michael Phelps incredible feats in the last two Olympics, but there are some real apples to oranges comparisons trying to match up swimming with track and field. There can be little question that Mr. Phelps is way up on the list, but it is difficult to say he’s the best ever. It’s far too subjective to say that, unless maybe he wins another six or seven gold medals in London in another four years.

    By the way, Mark Spitz broke seven world record capturing seven Olympic medals, IIRC, to put Michael Phelps six world records in perspective. I thought Mark Spitz was incredibly well spoken and gracious the other night when he was on with Bob Costas and Michael Phelps He is correct that it is tougher to win so many events now because of the overall depth of quality competition and specialization. At the same time, Mr. Spitz didn’t have quite the training and support advantages that Mr. Phelps has now. Finally, I think he was spot on about the heart of champions and the competitiveness that drives them.

    Oh, and Eric Heiden’s winning in sprints and distance events is unparalleled in anything I can remember.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Why the need to define “the greatest”? Its really kind of silly…