The Greatest Olympian Ever?

Posted on: 15 August 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Is Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian of all time?

For some people it’s a question that needn’t be asked. For others it’s a topic of debate, and for everyone else it’s just an astonishing achievement.

Michael Phelps has been branded the greatest Olympian of all time, simply because of those unmatched 12 gold medals at the tender age of 23.

Is it a done deal or is the book still open to discussion?

By some estimation, Phelps isn’t even the most successful Olympic athlete of all time.

Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina has nine gold medals to her name but has a bigger overall medal haul by four with 18 in her collection.

Phelps of course is within a few days of collecting another two in Beijing which could take his tally to 16, but stats can only ever tell part of the story.

Yes the Baltimore Bullet is without doubt swimming’s most decorated Olympic athlete but if we’re talking Olympics, there are other factors we need to bring in, such as the competitiveness of the event, the difficulty of competing in multiple medal races and the era in which it took place.

Then there are various other factors which need to be considered for a great Olympian to become a sporting icon: sportsmanship, reputation and demeanour.

Carl Lewis won nine gold medals spread over 12 years in the track and field. Seven of those medals came in individual events including the 100m and long jump. Phelps currently has six golds from solo swims and five from relays.

Lewis also scores well for consistency, winning his first long jump gold at the age of 23 and his fourth aged 35. But the American’s reputation is tarnished with positive tests for banned drug substances during his career.

Another star from across the pond is Jesse Owens who only ever had the chance to compete at one Olympics.

After his four golds in Berlin in 1936, including three Olympic records, Owens had successfully ran against Hitler’s ideology to earn instant fame.

Hitler snubbed an opportunity to publicly present Owens his medals and after the Games, Owens found himself banned by US authorities for running in commercial events, and eventually suffered the indignity of racing against horses to make ends meet.

Finland’s Paavo Nurmi’s only downfall in distance running was in fact something he could do nothing about - the weakness of his opposition.

There were no east African runners to race against when he won his nine golds and three silvers between 1920 and 1928. It does seem incredible that he had just 26 minutes to rest between winning the finals of the 1,500m and 5,000m in 1924. It also highlights the limited nature of the competition.

Nurmi could have claimed further golds had he not missed out on the 10,000m in Paris because of health reasons, and then been banned from the 1932 Olympics for receiving a tiny amount of money in travel expenses.

Britain has their own two candidates who clearly shine in the stakes for Olympic greatness for differing reasons.

Daley Thompson may have only won two golds but the Londoner took part in 10 different events.

In Moscow and Los Angeles, Thompson proved himself the greatest all-round athlete of his era, mastering disciplines such as shot putt and the pole vault.

Sir Steve Redgrave, meanwhile, managed the seemingly impossible task of winning five golds over five Olympics and still being the most modest man in the Olympic Village.

Redgrave could never enter as many events as Phelps in one Olympics, whilst the American will not be able to compete for as long as Redgrave - terms which neither deserve to be marked down for.

The closest comparison to Phelps in the pool is another US swimmer Mark Spitz.

The numbers are almost identical. Spitz won nine gold medals plus a silver and bronze and sent world records tumbling in every event at the 1972 Games.

The Californian even claims he could have won another gold, had the 50m freestyle been an Olympic event at that time as it is now.

But Phelps inches ahead of his fellow countryman in the overall medal count, and the fact that Spitz won more golds in relays than individual events.

On Spitz’s side? Well the fact he won seven gold medals in one Olympic Games - a record to this day, set back at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

That record may only last a few more hours as by the end of next week, Phelps will find out if his quest for eight golds in one Games can become a reality.

Does Michael Phelps deserve to carry the tag at only 23? Who is the greatest Olympian of all time?

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