The head of the London Olympic Committee, Lord Sebastian Coe, has fired a somewhat mean-spirited broadside at Michael Phelps after the swimmer became the most successful Olympian ever.
ABC News (Australia) reports Coe as saying, "You'd have to say he is up there. Whether he is the greatest. Probably not.”
Coe played the slight down, saying, "Hey, my opinion is no different from anyone else."
I suspect that it’s probably different from the opinion held by Phelps’ mum.
Of course, the debates of "the greatest of all time" rage for every sport, and the opinions are as diverse as those who hold them. When it comes to the Olympics, Phelps at least deserves to be in contention for the prize.
19 medals over three Games and the remarkable record haul of eight gold medals at the Beijing Games is a compelling argument in his favour.
Coe did offer up some alternatives—Jesse Owens and Nadia Comaneci—although he joked that modesty prevented him from nominating himself.
But how do you compare Phelps' performances with Owens’ performance in Berlin in 1936? To do what he did at that time and in that environment is remarkable on so many levels, and the significance transcended sport.
Or Comaneci’s rewriting of everything to do with women’s gymnastics in her perfection-defining performances at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Is Phelps the greatest Olympian ever?
The reality is that such comparisons are meaningless—and that’s the bottom line.
While Lord Coe has absolutely valid points, he probably could have handled it better.
Hyperbole and overstatement are the norm in the heat of Olympic competition; the time for serious introspection is after the games are over. Declarations of greatest athletes ever carry no more weight than former IOC chief Juan Antonio Samaranch declaring whatever Olympics he happened to be at as the “greatest Olympic Games ever.”
It would have been easy to avoid answering such a meaningless question, but by wading in and definitively stating that he thought Phelps wasn’t the greatest Olympian ever, he’s taken a tiny bit of shine off what is a remarkable feat.
I suspect that Phelps won’t really care that much.