Michael Phelps: Is Olympic Record Holder the Greatest American Athlete Ever?

Nathan McCarterFeatured ColumnistAugust 1, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 01:  Michael Phelps of the United States competes in heat 4 of the Men's 200m Individual Medley on Day 5 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on August 1, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time on Tuesday by picking up his 19th overall medal. The immediate reaction was to call him the greatest Olympic athlete ever, but that is a hasty claim to make. And I am on the side that says he is not.

A compelling case can be made for the swimmer. Nineteen medals is hard to argue with. He has provided dominant performances along with dramatic moments. The combination of the two makes him a memorable athlete.

Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time. That cannot be argued. But all events at the Olympics are not created equal. That is why other Olympic greats continue to stand above him in the pantheon of the Olympic Games.

One shining example is Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Joyner-Kersee made her Olympics debut at the 1984 Games, where she won the silver medal in the heptathlon. For those who are unfamiliar with the heptathlon, it is comprised of seven different events: 100-meter hurdles, long jump, high jump, 200-meter, shot put, javelin throw and 800-meter The event tests athletes in several areas to say the least.

Four years later she would return to the Olympics and put on one of the greatest Olympic performances in history. She dominated the heptathlon and set a world record for the event with a score of 7,291 points, a record that is still unbroken.

Joyner-Kersee went on to set a then-Olympic record of 7.40 meters in the long jump.

She returned to the Olympics in 1992 and won gold in the heptathlon again and a bronze in the long jump. In 1996, she made her final Olympic appearance. Coming off an injury at the U.S. Trials she had to withdraw from the heptathlon. She would go on to compete solely in the long jump.


In pain and in sixth place, she had one final shot to reach the podium. With a 7-meter jump, she secured a dramatic bronze medal in her final performance.

We can all be prisoners of the moment. And I suspect that is what has happened with Phelps. The immediacy of realizing he has 19 Olympic medals is astonishing. It is an amazing accomplishment that will not be touched for some time.

But all events are not created equal, and that is where I have a hard time just handing him the greatest Olympic athlete moniker. Swimmers can qualify for more events than, say, a wrestler can. It would be unfair to make the medal count the sole basis for an argument.

Phelps' performances have moved him into that discussion, however, and I am sure many will say that he is the greatest. And that is OK. At this level of competition we are splitting hairs. The events require different skill sets and abilities. It is ultimately unfair to compare.

It would be difficult just to debate who the greatest American athlete has been over the years, let alone the Olympics in general. Too many athletes have put on outstanding performances to accurately say who is the best. 

You may agree or disagree that Phelps is the greatest of all time. I disagree. Regardless, he is in the discussion and the greatest swimmer of ever. Let's just be happy we got to witness his greatness.