Greatest Olympian Ever should not be defined by medals won
US swimmer Michael Phelps. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOPHE SIMON
Michael Phelps has now won more Olympic medals than any other athlete, and he deserves praise for doing so. But this feat alone doesn’t automatically hand him the title ‘greatest Olympian ever’.
This isn’t to be disrespectful to Phelps at all. In fact, he could very well be the greatest Olympian ever and his performances in London have only added to his reputation as an outstanding athlete.
Rather, this is just a reaction to all those who, as soon as his medal count ticked over to 19 with a win in the 4×200 metre freestyle relay, decided that now he was the best.
As if this one single statistic is the only thing that matters in such a debate.
What crap. You have to remember that swimmers, unlike athletes from a lot of other sports, have the opportunity to claim multiple medals at the one Olympics. In fact, swimming as a discipline has 34 events at these Olympics, second only to athletics with 47. (Aquatics as a whole actually has 46.)
In comparison, there are 17 disciplines or sports at the London games that have only two events, one for men and one for women.
It’s rare for an Olympian to have as many opportunities to medal as a swimmer does. Of course, Phelps is limited by gender (ruling him out of half of the 34 swimming events), preferred strokes and time, so it’s not like he can enter every single event. But eight events per Olympiad seems to be his norm.
At the time of writing, Phelps had participated in 21 Olympic events since his debut as a 15 year-old in Sydney.
In comparison, Olympians from many other disciplines could only enter four events in the same timeframe.
Obviously, it’s just an unfair comparison. You can’t have a proper debate when the majority of Olympic athletes don’t fit the criteria.
If you find that harsh, Sebastian Coe – the man in charge of London 2012 and a two-time Olympic gold medal winner as a middle-distance runner – happens to agree.
“You can probably say that clearly, self-evidently, in medal tally he’s the most successful. My personal view is I am not sure he is the greatest, but he is certainly the most successful. That goes without saying,” Coe said.
“Who is the greatest Olympian of all time? I could go around this whole room, we’d all come up with different interpretations on that. But you have to say he’s up there. But whether he is the greatest, in my opinion, probably not.”
Unsurprisingly, a few Americans got a bit angry about these comments.
My favourite response came from sports business writer Darren Rovell on Twitter.
“Bonehead of the day goes to Seb Coe calling Michael Phelps the most successful but not necessarily the greatest Olympian. Ok, buddy,” he tweeted.
“Michael Phelps has competed in 19 Olympic events & has won gold 79% of the time #endofstory
“Phelps had to deal with suit technology that made so many better than they were. Seb Coe & others never had that challenge.”
Then, after being reminded Phelps has actually participated in 21 events: “Official Phelps tally is 19 out of 21 races with medals 15 (71% gold).”
Sorry, but it’s not quite #endofstory. There are athletes out there with 100% gold records, but they haven’t had the same opportunity to accumulate medals as Phelps has. Which just proves it’s a pretty poor basis for a “greatest ever” argument.
And if that doesn’t sway the most patriotic of Americans, well, just look at the previous supposed ‘greatest’.
Larisa Latynina, the 18-time Olympic medal winning gymnast from Russia, has been walking around London virtually unnoticed. She even offered to hand Phelps his 19th medal, but the International Olympic Committee declined.
Is that the sort of treatment the greatest ever would receive?
So no, winning the most medals doesn’t make Phelps the greatest. Stories about what he’s had to overcome (and unless he volunteered to race in his budgie smugglers, the swimsuits don’t count) and the quality of competition and a whole bunch of other factors must come into it.
Can you call Phelps the most decorated Olympian ever? Absolutely.
The most successful Olympian ever? Why not.
The greatest? Unless you can bring more to the table than his medals, no.
Michael DiFabrizio is completing his journalism degree. As an AFL writer, he has been an expert columnist at The Roar since 2009, and appeared in The Age and on ABC television and radio. Follow Michael on twitter @mdifabrizio
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