Is Michael Phelps the Greatest Olympian in History?
Sunday, August 05, 2012
Michael Phelps (AP Photo, Michael Sohn)
Because I am the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, a lot of people have been asking me if I think Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete in Olympic history. The short answer is that he is one of the greatest, but not necessarily the greatest.
First the evidence in his favor…
· He has earned more career medals than anyone in history. His total of 22 moved him ahead of Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina, who won 18 medals between 1956 and 1964.
· He has won twice as many gold medals as anyone in Olympic history, 18.
· He has earned 11 gold medals in individual events, three more than anyone else.
· He is one of only two athletes to win 8 gold medals at one Olympics (the other was Soviet gymnast Vitaly Scherbo) and the only person to do it twice.
With credentials like that, how could anyone dispute that Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever? It’s easy. Let’s begin with the question of whether he is the greatest swimmer by comparing him to two other great American swimmers, Johnny Weissmuller and Mark Spitz.
Before he became internationally famous as Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller dominated the world of men’s swimming. At the 1924 and 1928 Olympics he won five gold medals and, by the way, added a bronze in water polo. Of the 22 medals won by Michael Phelps, 19 were in events that didn’t exist when Weissmuller was competing. In addition, Weissmuller competed in an era when Olympic athletes were not allowed to make money. Consequently, even if they were still at the top of their game, they had to quit and make a living. In the case of Weissmuller, that meant giving up his training for the 1932 Olympics to earn $500 a week advertising swimsuits for the BVD Underwear Company.
Mark Spitz earned two gold medals, a silver and a bronze in 1968, and then won all seven events he entered in 1972. If, like Phelps, he could have earned money through endorsements and sponsors without losing his Olympic eligibility, Spitz could easily have starred again at the 1976 Olympics. After all, he would have been younger than Phelps was in London.
Of the 12 Olympic athletes who have won 12 or more medals, nine competed in gymnastics or swimming because those are the two sports in which it is the easiest to win multiple medals. But what about athletes in other sports?
Let’s start with Carl Lewis. Between 1984 and 1996, Lewis earned nine gold medals and one silver in the sprints and the long jump. In fact, he is one of only three athletes in any sport to win the same individual event (the long jump) four times. (The others are discus thrower Al Oerter and sailor Paul Elvstrøm.) When I rank athletes, I take into account the universality of their sport. Almost everyone in the world has, at one point in their lives, run 100 meters and tried to jump as far as they can. Very few people have jumped into a 50-meter swimming pool and swum 200 meters using the butterfly stroke.
Between 1920 and 1928, Paavo Nurmi of Finland won nine gold medals in long-distance running, as well as three silver medals. It is true that twice Nurmi won two gold medals for the same race, one individual and one team, but on July 10, 1924, he won the 1500 meters and then, less than two hours later, won the 5000 meters. He had planned to compete in the 10,000 meters and the marathon in 1932, but the International Amateur Athletic Federation voted 13-12 to disqualify him for being a professional, a problem that present-day athletes, including Michael Phelps, do not have to face.
Then there’s the legendary Czech distance runner Emil Zátopek, who, in 1952, added to his medal total by becoming the only runner ever to win the 5000 meters, the 10,000 meters and the marathon at the same Olympics. And what about Bob Matthias and Daley Thompson? They only took home two gold medals each, 16 less than Phelps, but theirs came in the 10-event decathlon.
From the Winter Olympics, there’s Eric Heiden, who, in 1980, performed the extraordinary feat of winning every speed skating event from the 500-meter sprint to the 10,000-meter long distance race? And how about considering Eddie Eagan, the only Olympian to earn gold medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympics (boxing in 1920 and bobsleigh in 1932)?
Many athletes have lost out on improving their medal total because of war or boycotts, the most famous being Jesse Owens, who earned four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. The next two Olympic Games were cancelled because of World War II. Some people have told me they think Owens also deserves special recognition because of the social implications of being an African-American sporting hero during an era of harsh racial discrimination and the fact that he performed his Olympic feats in Nazi Germany.
If social factors are to be taken into account, credit should also be given to the winner of the 1936 marathon, Sohn Kee-chung of Korea. Not only was Sohn forced to compete for Japan and watch his victory celebrated by the raising of the Japanese flag while his nation was occupied by Japan, but he was even forced to use a Japanese name rather than his real one.
One more athlete deserves consideration for the list of the greatest Olympic athletes even though she excelled in an obscure sport: German canoeist Birgit Fischer. Despite the fact that she missed the 1984 Olympics because of the Soviet-bloc boycott, Fischer (also known as Birgit Schmidt) won 12 medals, including eight golds, between 1980 and 2004. She is one of only two athletes to earn gold medals at six different Olympics and one of only five to win them 24 years apart. She is the only woman in both these categories.
So my opinion is that Michael Phelps is one of the greatest athletes in Olympic history, along with Carl Lewis, Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zátopek and Birgit Fischer. Ask me on a different day and I might throw in a couple of the others I’ve mentioned above.
Of course if Phelps returned to the Olympics in 2016 and won either the 100-meter butterfly or the 200-meter individual medley for the fourth time, he would definitely get my vote for the best ever.
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