I don’t want to underplay Michael Phelps’s achievement. But to call someone the Greatest Olympian of all time is highly suspect. It’s based entirely on one criterion: number of medals. Michael Phelps is the most decorated athlete of all time. That is objectively true and cannot be denied. Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time. This is a more subjective statement, but it is hard to argue with when you compare Phelps’s achievements to every other peer in his field, present or historical.
But when NBC and large swaths of the rest of the world’s sports media (and FINA) say “Greatest Olympian” they are comparing Phelps to athletes who are not his peers, athletes who can do things that he cannot do, just as he can do things that they cannot. And those other achievements are downplayed because they won fewer medals.
Most sports do not allow for the number of medals that swimming does. Swimming has four different strokes and many races that vary in length from 50 meters to 1500 (800 for women). Don’t get me wrong, winning one medal is a major feat, let alone 22 (18 of which are gold, not to mention the world and Olympic records), but it’s a feat that needs to be taken in context. Michael Phelps competed in his first Olympics in 2000, where he did not win a medal. That means he competed in four Olympics. Now take Roger Federer, another great athlete of this era who also competed in the same four Olympics. Had he won every medal available to him in that time, he would have won only nine–four singles, four doubles, and a mixed doubles (mixed doubles only started this year). By the NBC definition, Federer would be a lesser Olympian because he did not win as many as Phelps.
Of course, this is not a fair comparison exactly because Federer did not win every Olympic gold medal (nor did he enter every event). But there are many real achievements that have been overlooked in rushing to declare Phelps the Greatest Olympian Ever. First, the rower Steve Redgrave won a gold medal in five consecutive Olympics from 1984 to 2000. That means over the course of 16 years, he was at the top of a major endurance sport. Another example is Eric Heiden who won all five speed skating gold medal in 1980–which means he won the sprints and the long races (none of which were medleys). I don’t want to get into a game of whose record is more impressive, because that helps no one and cheapens many. That is why I resent NBC (also their television and online coverage are terrible).
Until this year the medal count was an afterthought, a nice piece of trivia. Before this year did you know who held it before Phelps? Larisa Latynina, the great Soviet gymnast of the late 1950’s and early 60’s, won 18 medals (nine gold, five silver, four bronze) including two all-around titles in 1956 and 1960. Before this Olympics, few outside the former Soviet bloc would have given much thought to Latynina. Despite her longevity, consistency, and being a primary force in establishing the Soviet stranglehold over gymnastics for nearly four decades, Latynina is not even considered the greatest gymnast of all time, at least according to the general public (such as myself) who know almost nothing and some who do know better. Latynina is very bitter about the reverence that Nadia Comaneci commands, and part of that bitterness is that only Latynina and Věra Čáslavská of Czechoslovakia have won the all-around twice at the Olympics (Latynina has more medal although Čáslavská beat her head-to-head of 1964.)
Latynina has spoken of her admiration of Phelps. She was at the aquatics center for Phelps’s record-breaking 19th medal and wanted to present it to him (her request was denied.) She still believes she is the greatest Olympian, and she is fiercely competitive about it. She has a logical reason–she would say that she won more than just 18 medals. After her retirement, she coached the Soviet women’s team to gold in the successive three Olympics (and fell out with sports ministry after Comaneci won the 1976 all-around title.)
Before this year, if you asked who the greatest Olympian was, most of the powers-that-be at NBC would probably not say Phelps or Latynina. The answer you would most likely get is Jesse Owens. (Or maybe Carl Lewis.) There are others. The Greatest Olympian is a mythical title; it cannot exist because there is no accurate quantitative way to determine relative greatness. The medals are a red herring.
But how wonderful it is for ratings.