More Reasons We Cannot Call Phelps the Greatest Olympian Ever

Yesterday I began a post on whether Michael Phelps is truly the greatest ever Olympian.  He’s probably the greatest swimmer ever (only Spitz, who won 11 medals (9 gold) and retired before the age of 22, compares), and is certainly the most decorated swimmer and the most laureled Olympian.  But I cringed a bit when Bob Costas called him the greatest Olympian of all time.

After all, the finest decathlete in the world can only win a single gold medal, and the sport demands such exquisite conditioning and such peak performance in multiple tasks that no one has repeated as Olympic Champion since 1984.  The finest swimmer in the world can win eight medals (or more) in a single Olympics, and can conceivably keep racking up Olympic medals across three or four Olympiads.  The finest decathlete in his generation could win two gold medals, conceivably three — while the finest swimmer in his generation has won 22.

Consider these facts.  There are 34 gold medals (17 each for men and women) given at each Olympics in swimming, with gymnastics a distant second at 14 medal events.  Swimmers also have relatively long lifespans as athletes, and a very low rate of traumatic career-ending injuries.  Appearing in two Olympics is nothing special for a top swimmer, and appearing in three is not uncommon amongst the very best.  In fact, two swimmers have appeared in six Olympics and thirteen have appeared in five.  Phelps has appeared in four Olympics, and could potentially compete in a fifth if he wished.  You can begin to win races at 15 or 16 and still be only 27 or 28 when you’re at your fourth Olympic Games.

Vitali Scherbo won 6 of the 8 golds available to male gymnasts in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.

This is why, of the eight summer Olympians who have won more than 10 medals since 1980, six of the eight are swimmers (Phelps, Matt Biondi, Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres, Natalie Coughlin and Ryan Lochte).  Then there are a bushel of swimmers with 9 or 10 medals, including Ian Thorpe, Gary Hall, and Alexei Popov.  And there are reasons why so many of the top-medal-earning Olympians have been swimmers of recent vintage.  Sixty years ago, there were only six medal events for male swimmers (the 100m freestyle, 400m freestyle, and 1500m freestyle, the 100m backstroke, the 200m breaststroke, and the 4×200 freestyle relay).  Of those events, Phelps has only won one, the 100m freestyle; across three Olympics, then, he could have won three golds in that era.  Fifty years ago, there were eight medal events (the 200m butterfly was added in 1956 and the 4×100 medley relay in 1960).  Of the events available then, Phelps has won three.

Of the 17 medal events for male swimmers, over half have been added in the past fifty years: the 50m and 200m freestyles, the 200m backstroke, the 100m breaststroke and butterfly, the 200m and 400m individual medleys, a 4x100m freestyle relay, and the marathon 10km.  So, rather than comparing athletes across sports on the basis of the total number of medals, I suggested comparing how many times they had dominated their sport at the Olympics — and then considering how many times a world-beating athlete could reasonably be expected to appear in the Olympics, given the nature of their sport.

Today I want to add five more criteria for cross-sport comparisons:

I’ll briefly mention three: (3) How far ahead of the then-current competition is the athlete?  This is self-explanatory, and Phelps fares well here, both on the basis of his total medal count (nearly twice his closest rival) and his world records (although it’s worth noting that technological advances contributed to many world records in this period).  (4) How dangerous and damaging is your sport?  Sustained excellence in wrestling or gymnastics (or some of the X-Games sports) is more impressive to me than in, say, table tennis, where traumatic injury and bodily damage is minimal.  Then, (5) Does your national team give you a reasonable opportunity at winning the gold?  Nine of Phelps’ medals have come in the relays.  Phelps would be sitting at (a still incredible) 13 medals, 10 gold, if he had been competing for Jamaica.

Now for two final criteria:

6.  How mature is the sport?

As sports mature, they grow more specialized, and becomes more difficult to dominate.  Sports sort for the athletes with the very best physiques (top gymnasts get smaller and younger, to a point; top basketball players get taller; top football players get bigger and stronger), and sports with variations (different strokes, different positions or different events) will also grow more specialized in each variation.  So, the best shortstop is very different now from the best catcher; the best point guard very different from the best center; the best running back very different from the best offensive lineman.  Similarly, in gymnastics, the different events select for different body types and skill sets.  In this Olympics, Gabby Douglas won the all-around but no individual events.  The event medals went to specialists.  For men, for instance, the best tumblers (floor and vault) tend to be short, stocky and explosive; the best swingers (high bars and some rings and parallel bars skills) tend to be longer and leaner; the best technicians (pommel horse and parallel bars) tend to have very flexible shoulders, precise control and meticulous minds; rings specialists tend to be hugely strong in the upper body.

Also, techniques can be refined in ways that require more training for each variation, so that a baseball player no longer has the time to train both as a batter and as a pitcher.  Or if you dedicate your time equally to all events in order to seek the all-around title, it’s hard for you to compete on the rings against a rings specialist who has really devoted himself to that event.  These are the reasons why I’m impressed, but mindful of the differences in the maturity of the sport today, when I hear of some of the gymnastics greats, like Nikolai Andrianov (15 Olympic medals in three Olympics) or Larisa Latynina (18 medals, 9 gold).  Latynina stood on the podium for every team, all around and individual event medal across three consecutive Olympics.  That’s amazing.  In the years since, however, the sport has grown so specialized that the best female gymnasts can only really peak for a single Olympic Games, and it’s become more rare (though it still happens) for the best all-arounders also to win multiple events of different kinds.

One factor is: across the variations or events, how different is the physique required?  For Phelps, his two best strokes, the butterfly and the freestyle, are arguably the most similar of swimming strokes.  They use the same muscle groups.  Swimming is a mature sport, so I don’t count this against Phelps, but the fact is that he has tallied 22 medals essentially by excelling in two motions and being quite good in two more.  He does those four motions over and over again, for years.  It’s very different from the kind of all-around athleticism required of a basketball player, a gymnast, a wrestler, a decathlete, and so on.

7.  How much all-around athleticism does the sport require?

Personally, I’m more impressed by a decathlete like Ashton Eaton winning a single medal, since it requires such all-around athleticism, than I am by a swimmer winning three golds in the 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle and 4x100m freestyle relay — or, for that matter, I’m more impressed with 1 gold in the all-around competition than I am with two individual event golds in floor and vault.

The most dominant single Olympic performances I have ever seen, in my lifetime, have been Usain Bolt in 2008, Michael Phelps in 2008, and Vitaly Scherbo in the 1992 games, when he won 6 of the 8 gold medals available to men’s gymnasts.  It’s hard to explain the variety of strengths and abilities (and hundreds of individual skills) required to be the best in the world simultaneously on the pommel horse, rings, vault and parallel bars, as well as the champion in the all around and team events.  But even Scherbo could not quite return to peak form in 1996 (he won four bronzes), after a shoulder surgery (and nursing his wife through a horrific car crash).  So the greatest Olympic gymnast of modern times, in my view, is Alexei Nemov.  Nemov won six medals in each of 1996 and 2000, including 1 gold and 1 silver in the all-around, but given the higher injury rate and the terrific strain gymnastics produces upon the body, it’s not really possible in the modern version of the sport to be the finest in the world for more than 4-6 years (which could span one or two Olympics).

Conclusion: What it comes down to, essentially, is that not all golds are equal.  This is a subjective argument — and subjectivity is what makes sports arguments fun.  But while I can call Phelps one of the greatest Olympians ever, I cannot call him the greatest.  I’m not sure I can call anyone the greatest.  It’s not a simple question of who has won the most golds.

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  • Bob Wiley

    You make a good case for the gymnists, but I favor the decathalon champions.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yeah, I view the Decathlon gold as roughly equivalent to the all-around gold. I have a lot of respect for decathletes.

  • Rick

    Although I agree with your overall contention that Phelps should be considered “one of”, but not “the” greatest, I do disagree with you about the athleticism of the swimmers. Their whole body must be in incredible shape and able to do more than just “2 motions”. The training they go through in the water, AND out of the water is intense. They are some of the toughest athletes (including mentally) you can meet (no pun intended).

  • Robert

    I agree with you that this entire topic is subjective, and I have enjoyed interacting with your arguments. At the end of the day, I can respect your statement that it’s hard to definitively call anyone “the greatest ever” when we are talking about such diverse athletic disciplines.

    That being said, I do think that your posts reflect a lack of knowledge/appreciation of the sport of swimming. Your reduction of Phelps’ accomplishments in swimming as “excelling in two motions and being quite good in two more” is absurd. By that logic, track runners (e.g., Usain Bolt) have perfected one motion; gymnasts have perfected a couple (flipping and twisting). Do you understand the technical aspects of starts, turns, underwaters, and finishes? Do you have any appreciation for the physical and psychological demands of swimming (and WINNING) that many events? Plus, as I mentioned in a comment on Part 1, Phelps actually is a world-class backstroker; it would just be physically impossible for him to take on any additional events.

    You are also writing with hindsight bias. Keep in mind that ten years ago, people would have said something like, “the best swimmer of his generation could conceivably win up to 11 medals (or possibly more) over the course of his career.” But Phelps took that old standard of greatness and absolutely demolished it. Before Phelps, the idea that a swimmer could win 18 Olympic gold medals would have been crazy, and the idea that he could win 8 gold at one Olympics would have been even more crazy (and honestly, it still is–in general, I think people are underestimating Phelps, which I know you would find hard to believe). Before Phelps, we probably would have been making the same argument about Spitz that you make about the gymnasts of old–i.e., “their medal tallies are impressive, but athletes today are just so much more specialized (and the sports so much more mature) that nobody could match that feat today.”

    I’ll close with this. You say: “Personally, I’m more impressed by a decathlete like Ashton Eaton winning a single medal, since it requires such all-around athleticism, than I am by a swimmer winning three golds in the 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle and 4x100m freestyle relay — or, for that matter, I’m more impressed with 1 gold in the all-around competition than I am with two individual event golds in floor and vault.”

    First of all, when we are talking about Phelps, we are not talking about a swimmer winning the 100 free, 200 free, and 400 free relay–that’s what we are talking about with Usain Bolt; with Phelps, it is much more than that. Second, I am indeed impressed by Eaton winning the decathlon, but it would be more impressive if he could win 5 or 6 of those ten events individually–heck, even if he could win 2 or 3 of them individually. Eaton is a versatile athlete, and that is what the decathlon tests. But he’s not really the greatest at anything. He’s just really good at a lot of stuff. Phelps is the greatest at a lot of stuff. That’s the difference.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Given that Spitz had won 11 by the age of 22, I don’t think anyone would have argued that 11 is the upper limit ten years ago. Even back then, it seemed to me like swimmers were just winning more and more medals every Olympics.

      You wrote as though I would disagree with the notion that Usain Bolt has only perfected one motion. I more or less agree with that. For gymnasts, for decathletes, for wrestlers, for martial artists, and for some other sports like basketball, the variety of movements and skills is just far greater. That’s okay. It’s amazing to me when someone runs an ultra-marathon. They have so perfected a single movement, and they do it better than anyone else. But I personally — and again, I’m acknowledging this is all subjective, like most good sports arguments are — find all-around athleticism more impressive.

      Phelps has done what no one else in the world has been able to do. The fact that no one else has done it speaks to how difficult it is. So I think, at least conceptually, I do grasp how difficult it is. Must be pretty difficult if only one person in history (so far) has been able to do it! Still doesn’t mean he’s the greatest Olympian.

      With Eaton, yes, I wasn’t comparing his one medal to winning 22, or even 8. I was just making the point that not all golds are equal, or require a similarly generalized athleticism.

      The track and field events are so different, and so specialized, that you really cannot expect the best decathlete to be the best at any single event. If he had the right build to be great at the shotput, he would not have the right build to be great at the 100 meters. You have to have a more general build. I’m not saying it will never be the case that a gold medalist decathlete will be, say, a gold medalist in the javelin. But look at the different in the physiques between shot putters and 100m sprinters and you’ll appreciate how the different demands between these two events is far greater than the different demands between, say, the freestyle and the backstroke.

      • Robert

        Yeah, I get that (the last point about shot putters vs. 100m runners). But the difference is not so great between a 100/200 guy and a 110 hurdles guy or a 400 guy or a 400 hurdles guy or a long-jumper.

        The argument that the strokes are all basically the same is simply not a good argument. The same people who make that argument will say that a track runner can only specialize in two events because “that’s just what people do–it’ be impossible to do more.” Well, my point is that swimming really isn’t any different.

        Before Michael Phelps, there was nobody like him. It’s hard to remember that now, after we have spent the last three Olympics watching him win 8, 8, and 6 medals, respectively, but that didn’t happen. Only three other swimmers have EVER won 6 medals (of any variety) at a single Olympics: Spitz (who of course actually won 7, all of which were gold, in 1972), Matt Biondi (1988), and Kristin Otto (1988; with an asterik here as she was East German and there is widespread evidence/admission of East German doping at this time). And in the era between Spitz (1972) and Phelps (2004), only two other swimmers even won 5 medals at a single games: John Naber (1976) and Ian Thorpe (2000). Phelps’s 2008 performance dwarfed all of those performances, and none of those athletes ever repeated that kind of medal haul, while Phelps has done it three times.

        Track is a little different than swimming, and we can chalk most of that up to the relays. All of those swimmers listed above were on good relay teams, and as competent freestylers, they were able to win three relay medals. (But that only makes Phelps’s achievement that much more impressive in comparison to the other swimmers’–if you handicap all of those numbers by three, the margin by which Phelps exceeded previous performances only grows.) If you look at those other multi-medal performances without the relays, they stop looking as impressive: Spitz and Otto* both won four individual golds; Biondi won two gold, one silver, and one bronze; Naber won two golds and a silver; Thorpe won one gold and one silver. Individually, Phelps won 4 golds and a bronze in Athens; 5 golds in Beijing; and two golds and a silver in London. (Plus in the only two Olympic events he did not medal in, he placed 4th in the 400 IM in London and 5th in the 200 fly in Sydney 2000.)

        Now to the track comparison… Before Phelps, only one swimmer had ever won as many as 7 INDIVIDUAL medals (of any color). In track and field, four athletes had reached that standard, two of them winning those medals after 1980. This supports my claim that ten years ago, before Michael Phelps altered the swimming landscape forever, it would have been no more imaginable for a swimmer to win 13 individual medals (11 of them gold) than it would have been for a track athlete.

        But Phelps has now done it, and people have come to take his extraordinary career for granted, so we now have to listen to track apologists argue that it is “easier” for swimmers to win a bunch of medals than it is for runners…

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Well, it *is* easier. It’s not easy. But it’s easier. As I mentioned, of the 8 people with more than 10 medals in the past 30 years, six of them are swimmers. That’s not a coincidence. The profusion of swimming events has clearly led to many swimmers getting 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 medals and Phelps’ 22. It just *is* easier to win multiple medals in swimming than it is in any other modern sport. That doesn’t make swimming easy, and it doesn’t detract from what Phelps accomplished. He’s head and shoulders above any other swimmer over the course of his career, and a phenomenal, phenomenal athlete.

          I mentioned shot put and the 100m sprint because we were talking about decathletes and whether they should be able to win multiple events. My point is that a top decathlete cannot be perfectly formed for one event (and thus a top competitor in that individual event), because then he would be poorly formed for other decathlon events, and therefore he would not be a top decathlete.

          I never said strokes are all basically the same. I said that butterfly and freestyle use the same muscle groups and physique. There’s more difference when it comes to the other strokes, but the difference is not as great as the difference between decathlon events or gymnastics events.

          Don’t worry. You like swimming. I get it. Maybe you were a swimmer. I’m not saying it’s a lesser sport. But I think it’s pretty clear that it’s easier for top swimmers to get multiple medals than it is for many others in other sports. The decathlete is the best example, because he can only win one per Olympics.

          Scherbo’s six golds in gymnastics in 1992 was, to me, at least as staggering as Phelps’ 8 golds in Beijing. Like Phelps, you have to compete in prelims, team finals, all around finals, and event finals. Many routines, and every time you’re doing many teams to practice and get used to the equipment. The events require such different skill sets, such different physical strengths, such different abilities overall, that winning four events, plus winning the all around, plus winning the team, is extraordinary. There’s no objective measure here, but to me that was more impressive. Scherbo did not sustain that over the course of 3 Olympics, but then gymnastics is different — and that’s the point.

          • Robert

            Yeah, I was a swimmer. I’ve followed swimming for a long time. That’s why I see so clearly that what was thought to be “impossible” as recently as 10 years ago is today thought to be “normal” (for an exceptional swimmer). Phelps proved that it wasn’t impossible, and it seems that his sustained excellence has actually hurt his case to be the greatest ever in the eyes of some. If he did the 8 for 8 once and never had another Olympic performance anywhere close to that, I think for some people the luster would be brighter than it is now that they have seen him do it three times.

            In the Phelps era, more swimmers are attempting to swim more events–resulting in Lochte and Kirsty Coventry also hitting the 7 total individual medal mark. (I would say that it is largely due to Phelps raising the bar in the sport. Lochte, for instance, has tried to match Phelps–and, incidentally, despite being an incredible athlete in his own right, he has been unable to really even come close.) But the top of the list for most Olympic medals is still dominated by gymnasts.

            I would say if we ignored relay performances (and gymnastics’ team all-around), we would get a much clearer picture of who has dominated Olympic events. The truth would emerge that it is exceptional for a swimmer to win more than two individual medals and almost unprecedented for a swimmer to win more than three individual medals or more than two GOLD medals.

            In London 2012, four swimmers won three individual medals: Phelps, Lochte, Sun Yang, and Missy Franklin. None of them won more than two gold (Lochte only won one).

            In Beijing 2008, four swimmers won three individual medals: Phelps (5), Coventry (4), Ryan Lochte, and Natalie Coughlin. Phelps won 5 gold; the others each won one gold.

            In Athens 2004, again four swimmers won three individual medals: Phelps (5), Coventry, Ian Thorpe, and Inge de Bruijn. Phelps won 4 gold; Thorpe won 2 gold; Coventry and de Bruin each won one gold.

            In Sydney 2000, three swimmers won three individual medals: de Bruijn, Dara Torres, and Yanna Klochkova. All three of de Bruijn’s were gold; two of Klochkova’s were gold. None of Torres’s were gold.

            In Atlanta 1996, three swimmers won three individual medals: Michelle Smith (4), Daniel Kowalski, and Dagmar Hase. Only Michelle Smith won gold–three gold to be exact.

            I’ll stop there. So in the last 5 Olympics, only twice did a swimmer other than Phelps win 4 individual medals, and only twice did a swimmer other than Phelps win three gold (one of those overlapped). Only three swimmers won three individual medals at two separate Olympics, and only one of those three ever even won multiple golds at a single Games. Nobody won three medals at THREE games or won multiple golds at multiple games. Except Phelps. These are the most prolific Olympic swimmers of the last five Olympic Games, and Phelps’s numbers just dwarf all of those.

            Apologies for so many stats, but I started getting interested in seeing how they looked myself…

          • Robert

            Stated another way, you could divide Phelps’s Olympic career into two careers (2000/2004/2012 and 2008) and they would probably rank as the two most impressive Olympic swimming careers of all time. To me, that says, “greatest Olympian ever.”

    • Nate Sauve

      Once they add the 100m backwards run and the 100m skip and the 100m shuffle? we can start comparing track athletes to swimmers accurately