Is Michael Phelps Really the Greatest Olympian Ever?

An astonishing Olympian – but the “greatest ever”?

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in he modern incarnation of the Olympic Games.  But is he the “greatest Olympian” ever?  It’s partly a question of definitions, but I would argue that he is not.

If the measure is simply the number of Olympic victories, then Phelps is the greatest Olympian.  He has an awe-inspiring 22 medals, 18 of them gold.  And he could probably score another few medals in 2016 if he wanted.  The problem, of course, is that we’re not comparing players within a single sport.  When it comes to comparing across sports, here are some criteria to bear in mind:

1. How many medals are awarded in your sport — and how many times did you dominate the Olympic Games in your sport?

In swimming, 34 gold medals are awarded at every Olympic Games.  Thirty-four.  That’s compared to 14 in gymnastics (8 for men, 6 for women), 13 in boxing, 11 in rowing, 8 in diving and Taekwondo, 5 in badminton, 4 in archery and table tennis, 2 in basketball, soccer, volleyball, beach volleyball, handball, field hockey, triathlon.  The only event that exceeds swimming in the total number of medals — indeed, the only event that comes close — is Track and Field, where there are 47 gold medals awarded.  But “track and field” does not describe an activity so much as it does an arena.  The variety of events in Track and Field is far greater, ranging from the 100m sprint to the marathon, from the hurdles to the steeple chase, and on to the javelin and shot put and high jump, speed walking and the women’s heptathlon and men’s decathlon.

A better measure, in my view, is how many Olympic Games you have dominated in your sport.  Michael Jordan was arguably the most dominant athlete in any sport in 1992, when he competed alongside the Dream Team.  But there’s only a single gold medal to be won in men’s basketball.  Jordan is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, one-ninth of Phelps’ total.  But he would have to compete in 18 Olympic Games in order to have as much opportunity for golds, and 22 Olympic Games — over the course of 84 years — in order to have the capacity to match Phelps’ total medal count.

2.  How many medals can a dominant athlete in this sport potentially win in a single Olympic Games?  AND how long many Olympic Games are available to dominant athletes in the sport?

Since the four strokes in swimming do not require dramatically different skills and physiques and muscle groups, it’s possible for one swimmer to excel in more than one stroke, and over a couple distances.  Perfecting your technique in any individual stroke will take an incredible amount of time.  But if you become one of the best in the world at a single stroke, you will already have the build, the physique, the endurance and most of the musculature to excel in the other strokes as well.  Also, the window of opportunity for swimmers is open for a long time — where it’s exceedingly rare for an elite gymnast to truly excel at more than a single Olympics, for instance, it’s not uncommon for swimmers (or divers, or beach volleyball players, or etc.) to compete for medals in two, three Olympics games or even more.  If Phelps wished, he could probably return for a fourth Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Let’s look at Phelps’ Olympic medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012:

100m butterfly – 3 golds

200m butterfly – 2 golds, 1 silver

200m freestyle – 1 gold, 1 bronze

200m individual medley (IM) – 3 golds

400m IM – 2 golds

4×100 freestyle relay – 2 golds, 1 silver

4x200m freestyle relay – 3 golds

4×100 medley relay – 3 golds

The only stroke Phelps truly dominated from 2004-2012 was the butterfly.  He was one of the best in the world at the freestyle, but “only” good enough to win it once, at one distance (200m).  He was not the best sprinter in the freestyle at the 50m or 100m distances, but the same capacities and build and endurance that enabled him to dominate in the butterfly enabled him to excel too in the 200m freestyle.  The rest of his medals came from the medleys, the relays, and the medley relays.  By being dominant in a single stroke, world class in one other stroke, and good enough in the breaststroke and the backstroke, Phelps collected an unprecedented amount of hardware.  To be clear: what Phelps accomplished is staggering.  It’s truly awe-inspiring, and I don’t mean to detract from the enormity of his accomplishment.  But it could only really be done in his sport.

The obvious comparison here is with Usain Bolt.  Bolt is a sprinter, a specialist at the same distances: 100m and 200m.  There is only one “stroke” in sprinting.  There are no medleys, no medley relays, and no 4x200m relay.  The most medals Bolt could reasonably achieve were three: the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay.  The nearest event, the closest parallel to another “stroke” in swimming, would be the long jump.  But the sprint and the long jump have reached such a high degree of specialization that it’s exceedingly uncommon for an athlete to excel both in the sprint and the long jump — far less common than it is for a swimmer to excel in two strokes.  Even so, no sprinter has won the 100m or 200m more than twice, and even if one includes the long jump, the number of medals available to a best-ever sprinter like Bolt is far less than the number available to a best-ever swimmer like Phelps.

Bolt dominated the sprinting events in 2008 and 2012, and he came away with 6 medals in sum, all of them gold.  Phelps was the most dominant swimmer in the 2004 and 2008 games, and he came away from those with 16 medals, 14 of them gold.  There are only 3 medals to be won for male sprinters on the track in the 100m and 200m distances.  Bolt won all of them, twice.  If you compete in the 100m and 200m distances in swimming, across all the strokes and relays and medleys and medley relays, there are: the freestyle 100m and 200m, the butterfly 100m and 200m, the backstroke 100m and 200m, the breaststroke 100m and 200m, the 200m IM, the 400m IM, the freestyle relay at 4×100 and 4×200, and the 4×100 medley relay — for a total of 13 medals up for grabs.  Multiply that by three Olympics, and you have 39 medals available to those who swim the 100m and 200m distances and can maintain their peak condition for 8 years.

Phelps is an extraordinary athlete, and arguably the best swimmer of all time.  But it’s worth noting that there is only a single sport in the Olympic Games — swimming — that really gives an athlete at the top of his sport the opportunity to win so many medals in a single Olympics, and then gives you a lifespan where you can multiple that number two, three or four times over.

Tune back in tomorrow for Part 2 of this post.  How should the strength of your national team factor in?  How do you compare sports as they mature and grow more specialized?  How far ahead of the competition are you in your era?  And how different are the medal events you’ve won?   

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • DK

    these attempts at constructing some sort of equivalence metric between sports always fail to convince me. the best comparison comes by measuring an individual against other past and present competitors within the same sport. Then you are at least comparing apples with apples, rather than trying to compute how many apples equal an orange. Phelps has 22 medals, 18 golds. Next down the list of swimmers is Mark Spitz, who has exactly half of both totals (11 medals, 9 golds); then Matt Biondi, with 11 medals and 8 golds, and Ryan Lochte with 11 medals and 5 golds. Phelps has doubled the Olympic accomplishments of any other swimmer past or present.

    On the track, Usain Bolt has 6 medals, all gold. Carl Lewis has 10 medals, 9 of them gold.

    If Usain Bolt comes back in Rio and wins 2 or 3 more gold, that would be an astounding feat. Probably enough to convince me he’s the greatest Olympian ever, just given the difficulty of maintaining dominance in those events. But even then, the best he could do is to tie Carl Lewis in golds.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    What’s amazing to me is that Spitz earned his eleven medals (9 gold) and retired by the age of 22. And he, like Phelps, was a butterfly and freestyle guy. The movements for butterfly and freestyle tend to use the same muscle groups (much more similar than, say, freestyle and backstroke), so it’s not surprising to me that these ones tend to go together. Spitz would have racked up more if he had stayed healthy and competing, and I suspect Lochte will add more as well. Part of what sets Phelps apart is his sustained excellence — competing in four Olympics, and medaling in three, compared to Spitz’s two Olympics.

    I too would tend to give Carl Lewis an edge over Usain Bolt right now — as an Olympian, not as a runner — but we’ll see what happens with Bolt. Four of Carl’s golds came in the long jump, which you can arguably maintain longer than the sprint events. But one thing Bolt has in his favor is just the breathtaking nature of his victories, winning by such big margins, especially in 2008.

  • DK

    One mistake I think you are making is your assumption that swimmers can go on swimming at an elite level beyond their mid-late 20s — because I haven’t seen much evidence that it is accurate. Their “prime” seems to include two Olympics if they are exceptional, and three if they are…well, if they are Michael Phelps. Phelps is 28, and Lochte is 29. Neither will be back swimming at Rio, at least not at an elite level in multiple events, even if they wanted to be. Could Spitz have come back and won a few more medals at 26? Perhaps, though I’m not sure that should be taken for granted. Even if we do take it for granted, though, he’s still way behind Phelps.

    Once again, if accumulating swimming gold medals were as easy as you insinuate, why does nobody else in the history of the sport have more than half as many as Phelps?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Come on, Dan. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m just trying to put together some helpful criteria for comparing across sports. I’m in awe of Phelps and grateful that he helps us win the medals total (I take that kind of stuff far too seriously!). But I cringed when he was called — simply — the greatest Olympian ever, and I’m trying to explain why. I would certainly count him as *one of* the greatest Olympians ever, but I do think the 22 medals need to be put into perspective a bit. He’s dominate two Olympics and done well in a third. A similar performance from a decathlete would garner two golds and a silver.

  • Tim

    Tim,

    I’m glad you’ve managed to make a persuasive and sophisticated point that I’ve been merely grunting at the television and innocent passersby. This isn’t confined to the Olympics: the media is obsessed with crowning some athlete in every sport “the greatest ever.” Phelps just happens to be the first Olympian who peaked entirely during the social media era. Unlike Lewis and Bolt (and Ali and Jordan), Phelps is an introvert who will not declare himself the greatest, so it feels like the media has to overplay his greatness to compensate for the fact that his only contribution to the narrative is his (admittedly awesome) performance.

  • Stuart Buck

    I generally agree. As good as Phelps is, the medal count is artificially boosted by how many variants of the same event there are. One can only imagine how many medals Usain Bolt would have gotten if there had also been the 100 meter skip, and the 100 meter hop-on-two-feet, and the 200 meter medley-run-and-skip, and so on for about 20 more events.

  • Alan

    You sure spend a lot of words to say what could uncontroversialy be said in one sentence: Comparing performances across different sports is a parlor exercise not an objective judgment.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      And yet, that’s not what I said. Glad you enjoyed it, though! Come back often.

  • Bob Wiley

    If Bolt won the 400m and both hurdles events, then he’d have a stronger case.

    • Robert

      I agree with this. There is no good reason to arbitrarily define Usain Bolt’s sport as “sprinting” and to define that as the 100 and 200, while proclaiming that Michael Phelps’s sport should be considered to be all possible swimming events. Not only are you wrong about all strokes being similar (yes, any Olympic swimmer could swim faster than most people at any other stroke, but Usain Bolt could hopefully run a faster 1500 than most people, too), but even if that were true, it would still be unfair to insist on Phelps winning 10 medals in order to “equal” Bolt’s three. Phelps’s program at these meets is astounding to anyone who swam competitively at an elite level. His races are demanding, and his ability to compete 17 times over the course of a week and emerge with 8 gold medals is mind-blowing. That number of swims is so unbelievably physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing, but even more impressive than that is the fact that he is taking on fresh competitors (at least relative to himself) in each of those events. For instance, in Beijing 2008 when he memorably out-touched Cavic in the 100 fly, Cavic was swimming his fourth race (and only final) of the meet (all of which were sprint events), while Phelps was swimming his 16th race (and seventh final) of the meet (including two 400s and ten 200s).

      The fact is, Michael Phelps has truly dominated the sport of swimming since 2001—and I mean, DOMINATED. (If Olympic years had been 2001, 2005, 2009, and 2013, his Olympic tally would be even more impressive.) He has entirely out-classed the rest of the world in the 200 fly, 200 IM, and 400 IM over that time period (with the only exception being the recent emergence of Lochte in the IMs as Phelps understandably rested on his impressive Beijing laurels a bit). He has won the last three Olympics and the last three World Championships and holds the world record (which he incredibly lowered below 50 seconds) in the 100 fly—while he has arguably been less dominant in that event (in terms of times), he has still won every major 100 fly since 2004 with the sole exception being a silver medal at the 2005 World Championships. His 200 free in Beijing 2008 was incredible—he lowered his own world record by nearly a second and won by the largest margin in Olympic history in that event (nearly two seconds).

      Furthermore, Phelps is a world-class backstroker. He only swam the 200 back at a major meet once (2006 Pan Pacs), and he won silver. I have personally watched him swim 54.– in the 100 back (unshaved and untapered) at a random meet in Ann Arbor. I don’t know how much you know about swimming, but that is very impressive. If he didn’t already have too many events, he could at least medal in both backstroke events at the Olympics. I’m not sure if there is any event that Phelps couldn’t at least final in at the Olympics—the only possibilities are the 50 free, the 1500, the 100 breast, and the 200 breast. There has never been a swimmer so impressive, so dominant, and so versatile. EVER. And he did it for over a decade. That would be like Bolt winning the 100, the 200, the 110 hurdles, the 400, and the 400 hurdles (or at least being capable of winning all of those), and continuing to compete at that level for 10 years.

  • Dan Nyman

    I would have to agree with the article…more events = more medals.

    I’ve read some of the comments from swimmers who say that the different strokes are completely ‘different’ and should not be considered variants. I say, if you are a swimmer you mostly likely will be exposed to the different strokes often…especially when competing in medleys. Hence, a majority of swimmers do all strokes and practice them often. Heck, you’re in the pool why wouldn’t you practice swimming back stroke and freestyle.

    Another point is that Phelps cannot compare to olympians of different sports. I once read an article which contained a quote from Lance Armstrong after completing the NYC Marathon. According to the article, after Armstrong had five tour de france victories and survived cancer, he said that that marathon was the ‘hardest’ thing he had ever done. I ask you…can Phelps complete a marathon???

    There is only one who can win gold in all of the events at the olympics from dressage to ping pong and from the 50 M freestyle to the marathon and that is the all-mighty Zeus (AKA: “Greatest Olympian, Ever”).

    • Robert

      The answer to “can Phelps complete a marathon?” is a resounding yes. If you have to ask that question, you don’t appreciate how fit Phelps is. That’s not to say that he would enjoy it, or that he would run it at record-breaking speed, but there is no question that Phelps could complete a marathon. Could Usain Bolt complete a 400 IM?

  • M

    You have also overlooked that Phelps has ALREADY competed at 4 Olympics- he was in Sydney as a 15 year old, where he made the final in the 400im but didn’t win a medal.

    It’s an apples vs oranges argument. What he has achieved is extraordinary. Does it make him the greatest Olympian? Who knows. But let’s not let this endless dissection take away from giving credit where credit is due: his performances have been extraordinary!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      No, I mentioned the four Olympics — albeit in Part 2 of this post.

  • http://www.ourwrightingpad.blogspot.com richelle

    As a former, fairly high level competitive swimmer – you do train all four strokes, but that is no guarantee that you will excel in all four. I was a butterflier, im-er, distance freestyler, backstroker. It was a rare meet that I could pull out stellar performances in all of those areas. You’ve also forgotten the fact that in most of those events, Phelps had to race three times to finally medal and televised competitions give very little awareness of the reality of how much or often how little recovery time there is in between. That could easily mean 4 -6 swims in a day. Greatest athlete to ever compete in the Olympics or not? Perhaps or perhaps not. Maybe that has more to do with your perspective and appreciation of all that is involved in the actual sport.

    Greatest Olympian, however, adds another dimension. Don’t you think that part of why the media keeps calling him the “greatest ever” is because he’s a downright likeable guy… he’s neither overwhelmingly arrogant nor overbearingly self-abasing… he’s majorly goofed up while in the limelight, lived through the consequences and has now earned his reputation back all while still in the limelight scrutiny… he didn’t look to blame anyone but himself when he did less than his best… he loves swimming and finds great joy in competing and striving to do his best… he’s investing himself and mentoring younger swimmers even while competing – and celebrating their victories with them… he started off with a disappointing performance in London, but then persevered to have another great Games… When you take all of that and combine it with the technology-aided information distribution worldwide? He’s a phenomenal athlete. No one questions that. But he is also showing himself to be a great ambassador for what it means to be a classy competitor: excelling athletically, gracious winning and losing, and promoting sports for a love of the sport and for bettering oneself – not just for another record or one more win.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, Richelle. I know there’s no guarantee you’ll excel in all four strokes, but I also find the differences between those strokes to be lesser than the differences a decathlete deals with in, say, the sprint and the javelin, or a gymnast deals with in the floor exercise and the rings. Phelps is world-dominating in the butterfly, one of the best in the freestyle, and good enough in the other strokes to win medleys.

      It’s a good reminder that one has to go through the qualifying heats. Many sports are similar in that respect, of course, but it *is* one of the things that most impresses me about the likes of Phelps and others like Lochte and the girls who sometimes have very little down-time between races. Presumably you could not do that in the longer distances.

      I agree that he’s a phenomenal athlete and a great ambassador, and he’s at least moderately charismatic and quite likable. I just question whether one can state decisively that he’s the greatest Olympian ever, especially on the basis of the medal count.

  • Hamish

    Thanks for this, and I agree with the point at heart; he is one of the best, not unequivocally the best.

    The reason for commenting then (as simply saying Yeah! high five!) seems a bit pointless…) is to say that it strikes me as being hard to concretely quantify in any form. Does greatness imply more than mere accumulation? You based your crit. on that ground, that it’s harder to accumulate in other sports.

    Does not context and influence come into it? And what about the manner and spirit in which those are won? (Genuine questions, not rhetorical!) For example, Jesse Owens had one Olympics, but it’s one of the defining moments in sports history, let alone Olympic history. There are others too who might deserve mention; Gebreselassie, Michael Johnson, and others. In terms of spirit for example, there could be question marks over Carl Lewis (I know it’s been spoken a lot about already, just an easy one to make here), regardless of the extraordinary number of medals.

    It seems like it’s a discussion that resists an objective scale such as numbers of medals; intangibles come into play. I guess that’s why it’s fun…

    Thanks for the thoughts!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yep, great points. Jesse Owens is a great example.

  • threegirldad

    I just question whether one can state decisively that he’s the greatest Olympian ever, especially on the basis of the medal count.

    Well, Bob Costas had no problem doing it, so that should be the end of the discussion.

    ;-)

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      That in itself is a powerful argument. Who am I to question Bob Costas?! Who are any of us, compared to his magnificence?!

  • Chris Oakes

    Grant me that I have not seen every Olympics since 1896. With that said, I have watched portions of the Olympic telecasts since 1984, and there is no memory more vivid than Phelps’ repeated dominance in 2008. To do what he did 8 times, across different lengths and strokes, is unparalleled and astounding.

    His perfomance this year was greater testimony, especially his winning the silver medal, since it showed how Olympians are supposed to fare – when competing multiple times during a Games, at least one of those times should include a falter. Think McKayla Maroney missing her second vault landing or Carl Lewis being outrun by Ben Johnson (at least in the actual race). But in 2008 Phelps hit gold 100% of the time, without faltering. That performance, in retrospect, seals the deal for me. No one else has ever been that dominant in one Olympics, and mostly dominant over three. No one.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      You make a good argument, Chris.

  • Jake

    Thanks for the post. It’s interesting and helpful to consider these things, and to make sure we realize that far more events/medals are offered to an elite swimmer than to other olympians. But we should also view this the other way around, shouldn’t we? What if the only medals available to Phelps were in, say, the 100m butterfly, the 200m butterfly, and a (currently nonexistent) 4×100 butterfly relay? If he trained exclusively for those events, isn’t it reasonable to assume that he, like Bolt, would win every single gold offered for at least two olympic games? More events and medals, as others have pointed out in the comments, also means significantly more heats. I’m no elite athlete, but in my experience, swimming 100 meters as fast as I can will wear me out 10 times more than sprinting 100 meters. We should be slow to use medal count as the only factor in a decision like this, but I still think there’s a stronger case for Phelps than anyone else as “the greatest olympian ever.”


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