Michael Phelps | Is He the Greatest Olympian of All Time?

Michael PhelpsThe past couple weeks I’ve seen countless articles discussing who the greatest Olympian is. Is it Michael Phelps? Is it Carl Lewis? What about Larisa Latynina? Or Paavo Nurmi? We can’t forget Mark Spitz. How do we determine and compare Olympic athletes? How do we know who the greatest Olympian truly is? Do we go by how many medals an athlete won? Or would it be fair to say it should be how many Olympic Records one holds?

The Argument

Most right now are saying that Michael Phelps is the “Greatest Olympian of All Time”. Some argue that swimmers get to compete in multiple events. Most athletes cannot, so it is unfair. Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics alone; 22 total medals over 3 Olympics. Carl Lewis, arguably the greatest Olympian won 10 total over 4 Olympics. Before Michael Phelps the greatest Olympic swimmer was Mark Spitz who won 11 total medals over 2 Olympics. Swimmers get to compete in multiple events: breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle, etc…Or you could argue that swimmers are skilled in more than one event, hence more competitions leading to more medals. Larisa Latynina was a gymnast and is second all-time with 18 Olympic medals. She held the all-time record until Michael Phelps bypassed her at London 2012. She still holds the most medals (14 total) for individual events.

A sprinter competes in sprinting events. You could ask why they don’t compete in all running events. It can seem that sprinting, running and marathons are just as similar to each other as the swimmers freestyle, butterfly and back stroke.  If we’re going to claim unfair, than it is actually sports like rowing, archery, boxing, wrestling, water polo and similar events that we should really be looking at. Because in these sporting events there is only one gold medal for the competition.

Michael Phelps is the Greatest Olympian of All Time

Breaststroke and butterfly are not the same. Sprinting and running a marathon are not the same. Jumping the pole vault and high jump are not the same. If you think they are the same than I suggest going out and trying them. Yes they are more similar to each other than badminton and tennis or soccer and baseball. But I think the title of “Greatest Olympian of All Time” belongs to the man or woman who dominates in their strongest event and continues to win medals in others. Michael Phelps strongest event was the 200m Butterfly, but he also won Gold medals in other events. Add up all those medals and it’s a valid way to show dominance. There’s a reason the Olympic committee grants those medals and so it is fair to be used as a benchmark for greatest Olympian ever. They count towards a Nations total medal count. Will we devalue them there as well? Most swimmers excel in one style of swimming, just like a sprinter competes in only sprinting. Until Michael Phelps, no one has dominated as clearly as he has. Before he came along it would have been argued that no one would be able to achieve what he has. And now that he has I think it’s arguably fair to say that he is the greatest Olympian of all time. No athlete has every stood on a podium and bowed their head to receive as many medals as Michael Phelps has.

He’s earned the title “Greatest Olympian of All Time”.

Let’s take a look at his record and all 22 Olympic Medals: 18 Gold, 2 Silver and 2 Bronze.

2004 Athens – Men’s swimming

Gold      100 m butterfly 51.25

Gold      200 m butterfly 1:54.04

Gold      200 m individual medley 1:57.14

Gold      400 m individual medley 4:08.26

Gold      4×200 m freestyle relay 7:07.33

Gold      4×100 m medley relay 3:30.68

Bronze 200 m freestyle 1:45.32

Bronze 4×100 m freestyle relay 3:14.62

2008 Beijing – Men’s swimming

Gold      100 m butterfly 50.58

Gold      200 m butterfly 1:52.03

Gold      200 m freestyle 1:42.96

Gold      200 m individual medley 1:54.23

Gold      400 m individual medley 4:03.84

Gold      4×100 m freestyle relay 3:08.24

Gold      4×200 m freestyle relay 6:58.56

Gold      4×100 m medley relay 3:29.34

2012 London – Men’s swimming

Gold      100 m butterfly 51.21

Gold      200 m individual medley 1:54.27

Gold      4×200 m freestyle relay 6:59.70

Gold      4×100 m medley relay 3:29.35

Silver     200 m butterfly 1:53.01

Silver     4×100 m freestyle relay 3:10.38

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  1. Phelps was pretty damn dominant, but I do have to agree with the critics who say swimmers have a major advantage in being able to compete in very similar events. Different swimming styles are much more similar than the difference between sprinting and marathons. Just look at the physique of a sprinter vs a marathon runner and you can see that it just isn’t possible to excel at both. Personally I think the title of greatest Olympian should go to someone who has excelled in drastically different events such as Carl Lewis did. A decathlon athlete should really be tops, but it is just too difficult an event to really dominate.

    • But is Sprinting and Long Jumping that much different? The 2 events Carl Lewis won in. Both fall under track and field. A long jumper sprints and then jumps. I think the similarity to swimming events is arguably close.

      So I guess my sympathy goes with the rowers and similar sports. A rower races and will take days to recover. A volleyball team can’t compete in basketball even if they meet the physique.

      Maybe one day a decathlon athlete will really dominate. Sounds impossible now, but what Phelps has accomplished was also thought to be impossible just a decade ago.

    • Todd Mayfield says

      Hmm that’s an interesting argument about Carl Lewis.
      I think it’s kind of sad that, say for Olympic Basketball, these players compete for three weeks for HOURS and only take home one medal. A runner or swimmer competes for seconds or minutes and could take home a medal.

      That’s not to say I think anything should change nor does that take away from Phelps greatness. It’s mind-blowing what he’s done.

  2. Heath Hicks says

    I think that if there were a one hundred meter crab walk, bear crawl, freestyle(regular running), and backwards freestyle track and field event Usain Bolt would probly win them all. Sound ridiculous? That was swimming is to me. Some guys back in the day raced across the pond and afterwards a sore loser said “oh yeah?… I bet I could beat you if we swim backwards!”. And thus swimming was birthed. All that to say, I think phelps is incredible, but it’s unfair to say he’s the greatest Olympian of all time.

    • Todd Mayfield says

      Ha that’s a pretty good thought Heath! When you think about all the Swimming events, some of them are essentially events based on who can swim most inefficiently in the fastest manner. If there were an Olympic bear crawl event, wouldn’t people think it’s ridiculous? Well think how hard and impractical some of these swimming events are. And why throw in the free-style? Actually…I don’t even know what that event is. But sign Usain Bolt up for the fastest at the Ministry of Silly Walks and he might be considered the greatest Olympian of all-time.

    • Ha! Those would be interesting competitions. But Bolt has a hard time getting off the block so I don’t think he’d win the crab walk. I’ll give you bear crawl though. I also don’t think he does anything over 200m so freestyle would be a no compete.

  3. My son’s a swimmer, and I think athletically Phelps would qualify. I love it when fat guys on t.v. eating doughnuts tell me that Phelps can’t be the best because the strokes are too similar.

    That said, he’s not my pic for greatest Olympian. That includes character and Mr. Phelps has had too many character issues for me to consider him as greatest Olympian. I prefer the blade runner or that sprinter in the 4×400 who broke his leg halfway through the race and still finished.

    • I can’t say I’m an expert on his character. I know he had a slip up with pot, but thought he got back on track. But character is important even though I didn’t include it in this argument. But if I did include that I might not have him as greatest Olympian. If we did include it though I think the title of “Greatest Olympian” would have to go to one who dominated in their sport and had high character. Not just one or the other.

      I’ve always been a fan of Eric Liddell. He won a gold medal and had exemplary character. Dude eventually went on to do a missionary tour in China and died in a Japanese prison camp during WWII.

  4. You’re all wrong! Eric the Eel is the best ever! He was epic!! What a legend! Wonder what he’s doing now???

  5. I agree with you that he is the greatest. However, I honestly don’t think he cares. His goal from being a kid was always to win “one” gold medal. I mean he used the $1 million he earned from Speedo for breaking Spitz’s record to start a foundation to promote water safety among the youth.

    Larisa Latynina was at the games when he broke the record and was genuinely happy for him and she said she hopes that he holds that title for a long time.

    Greatest or not, he is definitely the most decorated.

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