Olympic Games 2012: Is Michael Phelps Greatest Olympian Ever?

Bell MalleyAnalyst IIIAugust 2, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 31: Gold Medallist Michael Phelps of the United States celebrates with his family following the medal ceremony for the Men's 4 x 200m Freestyle Relay final on Day 4 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on July 31, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

As Michael Phelps watched teammate Ricky Berens finish off the third leg of the 4x200 freestyle relay, a lot of thoughts must have been racing through his head. With a solid anchor leg, Phelps would win his first gold medal of the 2012 Olympics and his 19th overall medal, breaking a record set years ago by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.

Berens, Ryan Lochte and Conor Dwyer handed Phelps a near four-second lead, and less than a minute later, Phelps had another piece of history. 

The first few days of the 27-year-old Phelps' fourth Olympic games were a disappointment. The man who unbelievably won eight golds out of eight events in the '08 Beijing Games failed to medal in the 400-meter individual medley when he finished fourth. In the 4x100 meter freestyle relay, teammate Lochte wasted a great leg by Phelps, and leaving the U.S. to settle for silver behind France.

In Phelps' signature race, the 200-meter butterfly, the Baltimore native blundered right at the end, handing Chad le Clos gold and settling for bronze.

After Phelps totaled a record 14 golds from 16 events in Athens and Beijing, fans were arguing about who was the best American swimmer: Phelps or Lochte.

One race and one gold medal later, the argument changed gears a little bit.

Now people are wondering if Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever.

Phelps' top contenders in this category include: Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov, Muhammad Ali, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, Natalie Coughlin, Michael Johnson, Latynina, Alexander Karelin, Nadia Comaneci, Elisabeta Lipa-Oleniuc and possibly Michael Jordan,

Out of this list, the easiest to eliminate are Coughlin and Spitz. While both are among the best swimmers ever, Phelps has that honor no matter what. When competing in the same sport, it is relatively easy to compare.

Spitz has 11 total medals, nine gold, over two Olympic games, whereas Phelps had 16 medals, 14 gold, after two Olympics, and has now topped both of those midway through his third Olympic Games.

Coughlin—arguably the greatest female swimmer ever—has 12 medals, of which only three are gold.

One of the arguments made against Michael Phelps is that swimming is one of the few events in which one can compete for seven, eight or nine medals over the course of one Olympics. So, people like Jordan, who was the best player on two separate Olympic gold-medal-winning squads (1984, 1992), would have, at absolute most, four Olympic medals over the course of his career.

However, few would argue that Jordan is a better Olympic athlete, because frankly, Olympics are really about the individual or two-person sports.

Ali only won one medal, a gold, so that all but knocks him out of this discussion.

Another one of the points to claim that Phelps is not the GOAT is that the "pool" of swimmers is not very high. To simply make Team USA's basketball team, which should hand you a gold medal, is a tougher order than to qualify to swim.

Not only do more people play basketball than swim competitively in this country, but there are more swimmers than basketball players on team USA.

So that argument knocks out any other player for a not-so-common sport that has not won as many medals as Phelps.

Those eliminations basically leave a clear top three Olympic athletes ever: Michael Phelps, Carl Lewis, and Jesse Owens.

Lewis won 10 medals during three Olympics—including nine gold. But the manner in which he did it is mind-boggling.

No other track and field athlete has ever defended the 100-meter dash or the long jump before. Lewis did both, and went on to win four consecutive gold medals in the long jump. He also won two golds in the 4x100, and a gold and a silver in the 200-meter dash.

Lewis presents the whole package: longevity (four Olympic Games), dominance (four-time long jump winner, and the world's best track and field athlete for eight years), and most of all, more so than Phelps, versatility (jumping and running).

Sure, some could argue that Phelps swims both butterfly and freestyle, which are relatively different strokes, but what Lewis had to do required a utterly different skill set, which is more impressive.

Given the constraints of the number of events Lewis could compete, he definitely did the most he could as an Olympian.

Jesse Owens is in this top three for a different reason.

Owens won only four medals, all gold, and only in one Olympics—the 1936 Games in Berlin. However, Owens entered an Olympics in which Adolf Hitler was showing off his Nazi Germany to the world, trying to prove that Aryans were superior to ethnic Africans.

Owens' performance stunned the world as he, like Lewis 48 years later, won the 100, the 200, the 4x100 meter relay and the long jump.

Owens faced so much adversity during these Games, making his performance all the more impressive.

Maybe had he done the same once more, he could top out the list, but for now, it's a two-man race.

In my mind, Phelps just barely edges out Lewis for the following reasons.

Lewis probably had the chance to win 16 medals, had he participated in all four of his events for all four Olympic games, but that's just unrealistic, right?

Despite the claims that Phelps gets to swim more events, he also exerts more energy, swimming so many heats and semis just to get to the final.

He continuously swims in many events and continues to succeed. Had Lewis been just short of Phelps' medal record, he would have earned the top spot, but Phelps has nine medals more than Lewis, enough to push him over the top.

So, my final rankings go: Phelps (barely), then Lewis, Jesse Owens a relatively distant third, Karelin, Spitz.