Olympic Swimming 2012: Is Michael Phelps the Greatest Olympian Ever?

Shane DarrowAnalyst IIAugust 1, 2012

When the United States won the gold medal in the Men's 4x200-meter relay in the pool on Tuesday... it was much more than another victory for the red, white, and blue.

It was a career defining moment for Michael Phelps, as he earned his 19th career medal, which moved him in front of Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina as the most decorated Olympian of all time.

When watching the Olympics, I think all of us try to imagine what the feeling must be after winning a gold medal. It marks you as the best athlete in the world in that event, which is the most accomplished an athlete can ever feel.

The adrenaline that goes through your body as you wrap yourself in your country's flag while the National Anthem plays I'm sure is indescribable.

I mean, my dream as a kid was to win the race to the top of the Super Aggro Crag and take home a coveted piece of the molten rock on Nickelodeon's Global Guts...but that's just me.

Phelps not only has 19 career medals (and counting), but out of the 19, 15 of them are gold. Every event he ever enters he is expected to win, and he rarely disappoints.

It is hard to fathom that a legitimate argument can be made on any other athlete in the history of the greatest competition in the world being greater than Phelps, but they are definitely out there.

It may be obscure that the first athlete who comes to my mind is Michael Jordan, arguably the most celebrated athlete in United States history.

There are many sports that are difficult to compare to swimming and gymnastics, because there are multiple events, whereas other sports have one, and only one sole shot for gold.

Sure, Jordan headlined the "Dream Team," but many will say that he was surrounded by guys like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Patrick Ewing, which helped propel him toward the United States' convincing gold-medal romp in 1992.

But what if I were to tell you that out of Phelps' 15 gold medals, six of them were won as a part of a relay team? Would that change your opinion in the slightest bit? 

If you really think about the most defining gold-medal Olympic moment of Phelps' career before his record-setting 19th medal, many will say it involves a moment where he wasn't even in the pool. Jason Lezak's improbable comeback on the last leg of the 4x100 relay in 2008 has to be at the top of the list.

Should Phelps be penalized for not having that one moment that will stick in our heads forever? I guess there is when he won the 100-meter butterfly in 2008 after coming from behind Serbia's Milorad Cavic to beat him by one one-hundredth of a second. So maybe I just contradicted my own argument.

How can you define the greatest Olympian, though? Phelps might have the most medals in the history of the games, but has he done half of what was done in the main scheme of things as when Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field during the Berlin Games in 1936, and pretty much all but destroyed Hitler's "master-race" theory? 

Mike Eruzione led arguably the greatest comeback in the history of sports when the United States hockey team defeated the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War in 1980. The echo of Al Michaels saying "Do you believe in miracles?" will remain etched in my eardrums until the day my time clock on this earth expires. That team changed an entire nation.

The simple fact is that this remarkable feat by Phelps, can't fairly be compared to what Owens or the 1980 hockey team did... and I am only speaking for American Olympic history. It is simply a different time period, with a much different global atmosphere.

To say that Phelps has been under the public eye since he was 15 years old would be understating the circumstances. He came through the social media generation, where news is shared at the drop of a hat, and for the most part, Phelps handled it with ease.

He was an ant under the magnifying glass of the public eye simply waiting for him to burn, but he continued to push forward. 

There is, of course, the image that surfaced of Michael Phelps smoking marijuana in 2009, which many thought would permanently taint his image, and to some maybe it has, but speaking from a college student's perspective, there are worse things out there.

As a role model, Phelps should of course be nowhere near the pipe, especially in the public eye, but I saw a tweet earlier today that made me chuckle quite a bit, and made light of the situation: 

 

 

Don't smoke weed kids. You might win more Olympic medals than anyone else ever.

— 000___000 (@000___000) August 1, 2012

While many will be skeptics about Phelps' training efforts between the 2008 Games in Beijing, and this year's Games in London, it is hard to argue against someone whose career medal count will more than likely end in the 20s.

He has three races left, and then his career in the pool on the Olympic stage will be over.

He battled more than the competition he faced in the water throughout his career, he battled the eyes of the world watching him and waiting for him to fail, but he never succumbed to the pressure.

The world will wait for another athlete to climb through the clouds toward the top of the individual medal-count mountain, but for now one man stands alone at the top.

Michael Phelps has forcefully placed the American flag atop the Olympic summit, and he will remain there for a long, long time. It took 48 years for Phelps to get past Latynina, and who knows if his record will be passed in our lifetime.

He is the greatest ever.