Is Michael Phelps The Greatest Ever Olympian?

Andrew BarrySenior Analyst IAugust 13, 2008

Each country has a symbol of success and triumph, for China it is basketball giant Yao Ming. When you think of all the Americans who could be the national pride and joy, there can only be one winner. The greatest Olympian ever Michael Phelps.

But here is the question, is Michael Phelps, holder of 11 gold medals and 13 including two bronze the greatest ever Olympian? Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis, Paavo Nurmi and Larysa Latynina could all lay claim to Phelp's new title.

Spitz claimed two golds in Mexico City before going on to claim seven in Munich. The latter was an impressive 7 of 7 haul and Spitz famously remarked before his last event: "I know I say I don't want to swim before every event but this time I'm serious. If I swim six and win six, I'll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I'll be a failure."

The American doesn't have to worry however, he is the second greatest Olympian swimmer, trailing man of the moment Michael Phelps.

Larissa Latynina was a Soviet gymnast who was born in the Ukraine, she's better known for her amazing nine gold medals. She actually won a medal in every event she took part in, they were Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964. Her total Olympic medal count comes to 18 and she has a high claim to greatest Olympian of all time.

It's not as straight forward to compared Latyinna to Phelps as it was Spitz to Phelps. Two completely different events with completely different techniques required, I'm tempted to give the Soviet the nod because of more intense opponents but Phelps will get it because this is only his second Olympics compared to Latynina's three.

Paavo Nurmi was a Finnish long distance runner who claimed nine gold medals like Spitz and Latynina, he competed in three Olympiad's. Three golds in Antwerp 1920 were followed by five golds in Paris 1924 and he finished an historic career with a gold in Amsterdam 1928.

He is considered by many to be the greatest ever track and field athlete and it is unlikely his haul will be beaten in the near future. Is Phelps a greater athlete in Olympic terms?

The statistics will say so, but I don't think so. The track is a harder place to win medals then the pool, so sorry Michael but you lose this round.

Carl Lewis is yet another famous track and field Olympian, like his fellow athletes he claimed nine gold medals. Yet the American had a slight advantage over Nurmi as he competed in four Olympics, Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996.

Definitely the greatest ever Olympic sprinter but overall there is no doubting his greatness. Is Phelps better then Lewis? Because it took Lewis four Olympics to reach his total whereas it took the swimmer just two, I'm going to give Phelps the nod.

Special mention must go to Jesse Owens who defied Hitler by winning four gold medals at Berlin 1936. He showed up Hitler's campaign of anti-blacks and German superior race. Not the greatest but he won four golds in one Olympics, if only more had followed. Still a hero.

So on that evidence make up your own mind on who is the greatest ever Olympian. My order would be along the lines of...

  1. Paavo Nurmi
  2. Michael Phelps
  3. Carl Lewis
  4. Larissa Latynina
  5. Mark Spitz
  6. Jesse Owens

So Michael Phelps sits at No. 2 on my list, but if he goes onto claim the maximum from Beijing and a few more from London then he'll rocket to No. 1 without a doubt.