The last two days of Michael Phelps’ competitive swim career are upon us, as the swimming program of the 30th Summer Olympiad concludes Saturday. Phelps will retire from the international stage as the greatest swimmer in the history of the world. In the midst of Phelps’s highly successful farewell tour, a reasonable and fair national debate over the greatest Olympians in history has developed.
With all due respect to the enormous accomplishments of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Games and Al Oerter’s four-peat in the Olympic discus, the metric for Olympic greatness should be based upon:
1) Competitive greatness
2) Diversity of accomplishments
3) Dominance of the athlete’s sport
By this method, the debate for greatest American Olympian boils down to two candidates: track star Carl Lewis and Michael Phelps.
Phelps is indisputably the greatest Olympic swimmer in American history. In an international swimming landscape far more competitive than that of his GOAT forefather Mark Spitz, Phelps submitted an era of dominance from 2001 – 2008 that is unmatched. His accomplishments in the 2012 Games are icing on the cake, or as Phelps likes to say, extra toppings on the sundae.
After Friday evening’s gold medal performance in the 100-meter butterfly, Phelps raised his medal count to 21 total medals; 17 gold, 2 silver, and 2 bronze. Saturday night, Phelps will likely swim the butterfly leg of the heavily favored United States 400-meter medley relay team.
2012 Olympics: Phelps’ three gold medal and two silver medals (thus far) in 2012 have fallen short of his mile high expectations. His 400-meter individual medley was undoubtedly the great disappointment of his Olympic career, BUT he rebounded well. In the process, he became the first male swimmer EVER to win an individual event in three consecutive Olympics, TWICE (200-meter IM and 100-meter butterfly).
2012 Medal Haul: 3 gold medals (2 individual, 1 relay) – 200-meter IM, 100-meter butterfly, and 800 freestyle relay; 2 silver medals (1 individual, 1 relay) – 200-meter butterfly, 400-meter freestyle relay
2008 Olympics: Phelps utter domination of the 2008 Games earned him unprecedented levels of Olympic success. His eight gold medals earned were the most ever in one games, and placed him one gold medal short of the career American record. His diverse program included grueling endurance events (400 IM) and high-octane sprint events (100 butterfly). Phelps swam at his peak in three gold medal relays. The scrutiny, pressure, and sheer volume of work in seven days times underscore the greatness of his 2008 accomplishments.
2008 Medal Haul: 8 gold medals (5 individual, 3 relays): 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter butterfly, 200-meter IM, 400-meter IM; 400-meter freestyle relay, 400-meter medley relay, and 800-meter freestyle relay
2004 Olympics: Phelps was introduced to mainstream sport fans worldwide with a remarkable performance at the ripe old age of 19 years. Phelps took home six gold medals and two bronze medals, dominating his specialty events, and narrowly losing one of the greatest races in world history (200-meter freestyle) to the world’s two best freestyle swimmers at the time (Ian Thorpe and Pieter von dan Hoogenband).
2004 Medal Count: 6 gold medals (4 individual, 2 relay): 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter IM, 200 meter butterfly, 400-meter IM, 400-meter medley relay, and 800-meter freestyle relay; 2 bronze medals (1 individual and 1 relay): 200-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle relay.
2000 Olympics: In an underrepresented moment in Phelps’ great career, he became the youngest American male Olympic swimmer since 1932. Shortly after his 15th birthday, Phelps turned in a solid fifth place finish. Men’s swimming is not a young man’s sport, and Phelps’ Y2K performance deserves added attention. At the 2001 World Championships, still 15 years old, Phelps became the youngest world record holder (200-meter butterfly) in swimming history.
2000 Medal Count: 0 medals
Phelps’s peak Olympic performance in 2004 and 2008, bookended by his additional achievements in 2000 and 2012 make him indisputably the best swimmer in American (and world) history.
The contest for the greatest American Olympian becomes a bit more cloudy. Carl Lewis, named Olympian of the (20th) Century in 2001, is the main competitor to Phelps for the GOAT. Lewis won 10 medals, 9 gold, and won the long jump in four consecutive Olympics. His record in the sprints in 1984 and 1988 was stellar, winning four golds in 1984 and two more in 1988.
However, the dominance and longevity arguments between Phelps and Lewis are mostly clouded by the translation between the two sports. Swimming has more events in which an athlete can logically compete (we are still waiting for the first athlete to dominate the 100-meter dash and the shot put in one Olympics). Lewis’ greatness in two distinct events (100-meter dash and long jump) is remarkable. Nonetheless, the argument that these two events are so fundamentally different as to be nearly impossible to simultaneously dominate is oversold. Track sprints and jumps require a similar athletic skill set – explosive speed and power, well-developed fast-twitch muscle training, and peak performance in short (generally less than 10-second spurts) periods of time. Four years after Lewis’ retirement, former track great Marion Jones sought a similar platform. Great performance in sprints and jumps simply is just not unique.
Where Lewis gets credit, Phelps’ accomplishments are dismissed. Lost in the translation of accomplishments of swimmers and non-swimmers in the Olympic Games is the notion that swimmers have the “unfair” advantage in racking up medals over non-swimmers.
Without disrespecting Lewis’ varied accomplishments, I call your attention to the varied accomplishments of Phelps in his career. In his prime, Phelps absolutely dominated the 2004 and 2008 Summer Games. He competed in a wide variety of events, including the sport’s most grueling event (400-meter individual medley), mid-distance events in the 200-meter butterfly, 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley, and one sprint event (100-meter butterfly). In 2008, Phelps won gold in all five of those events. His 14 gold medals between 2004 and 2008 were the most ever by an athlete in any sport, as he sprinkled in gold medal-winning performances in the 400-meter medley relay, 400-meter freestyle relay, and 800-meter freestyle relay in those games.
The translation from swimming to track is neither neat nor necessarily flawless, but Phelps’ varied program should draw more comparison than contrast to Lewis’ programs. For a swimmer to dominate the world stage in the 400-meter IM and 100-meter butterfly is akin to blending the baseball skill sets of Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols. The 400 IM is a grueling individual task, demanding not only peak fitness levels but also mastery of all four competitive strokes. In addition to technical mastery, the 100-meter butterfly requires speed, power, and explosiveness. Not only did Phelps dominate both of those events, but he was the world’s premiere swimmer in his additional 200-meter specialties.
It is worth noting that while swimmers do have more opportunities to compete in various events at the Olympics than their track brethren, Phelps was limited by the nature of the swimming events as well. Prior to the 2008 Olympic Games, Phelps also ranked among the world’s best swimmers in the 200-meter backstroke and 100-meter freestyle. For Phelps to have added those events to his 2004 or 2008 program would have been physiologically impossible. His ability to reach that level in his off events should be noted.
There are a number of metrics by which we can determine the greatest Olympian of all-time, and none of them are objective. Olympic greatness could be measured by longevity, dominant achievements in a single Olympiad, or some combination of historical significance and greatness. Phelps receives the highest possible marks in the first two categories, though he lacks the longevity of such Olympic greats as Al Oerter in the discus and Carl Lewis in the jumps. Lewis’ nine career gold medals, including four in the 1984 Summer Games, make him the finest track athlete in American history. However, after those 1984 games, Lewis’ dominance in a variety of events undeniably fell. On the third metric, Jesse Owens no doubt would represent the country’s greatest Olympian, winning four gold medals in Berlin in 1936 in the face of Hitler’s rise to regional dominance in pursuit of the glorification of his Aryan people.
Ultimately, Phelps’ diverse accomplishments are not given enough credit. He will likely finish his Olympic career this weekend with 22 total medals, including up to 18 gold. While Phelps benefitted from the opportunity to swim more events than the modern track star can run, he seized the opportunity. Top swimmers from around the world may compete in just two or three events in an Olympiad, highlighting the unique skill set of Phelps (and Ryan Lochte, for that matter). Along with his other-worldly medal count, the unique ability of Phelps to dominate such a broad platform of swimming events over the span of three Olympiads is enough to earn him the title of America’s greatest Olympian.