Michael Phelps the Greatest Olympic Athlete 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.