In general, ESPN journalism is an effort in one-upsmanship, much like the fan-dom of today’s athletics- “Who is the single best athlete? Who, throughout history, has achieved more in sports, ascending to the glowing throne of 'greatest' (for today)?” The question really is that silly. Realistically, achievement in sports more accurately mirrors the stock market or the tides. Michael Jordan ought to be considered for superlative greatness for only 6 or 7 out of the many years of his life. That is an insignificant portion. And he's not even playing anymore. One would have to say "the 1996 Jordan was the best. The 1995 Jordan wasn't nearly as good." Again, silly.
Best ever cannot be said. By such simple measures and ignorant assumptions, mediocre writers get front page print by waving superlatives in a fit of delusional authoritative prose. So sad that one cannot simply state Michael Phelps has won the most medals of any Olympian ever.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow once defined an aspect of behavior in terms of human potential. He called it “self-actualization.” Self-actualization is the achievement of one’s potential to extent of rising above one’s circumstances or otherwise perceived limits. Isn’t that “greatness?” Gandhi and Martin Luther King jr. are examples of such “greatness.”
The significance of these Olympic moments may pale in comparison to Jesse Owens humiliating Hitler and single-handedly precluding the Nazi demise, or the greatness of Carl Lewis in multiple disciplines on the track, or the precision and grace in gravity defiance of the great Nadia Comaneci, or the crippled clinching of Gold by Keri Strugg. It may just pale in comparison to the anchor of the US 4x100 swimming relay, Jason Lezak, that gave Phelps gold, with the heroically defiant "smashing" of an arrogant French anchor man.
Or Dara Torres, 41 years old, swimming for gold with a young daughter cheering her on. Melanie Roach is 33 and mother of 3 children. She came in 6thin weightlifting, successfully completing all of her target lifts. Reese Hoffa was orphaned by his mother at a very early age. Now he competes for Gold in the Shot put. Or even Walton Eller, who won Gold in the double trap. Perhaps if there were more trap events…
No doubt Michael Phelps is earning a spot among legends in the Olympics, but I submit that winning Gold does less than he might think to solidify his place in history. It’s how you do it and against what odds. We and future generations will remember that Tiger Woods once won the U.S. Open with a broken knee and torn ligaments.
No, Phelps is most likely not the greatest Olympian ever, simply because there are no metrics to gauge such a claim across so many events and so many circumstances. Thus, foolish is the statement "the Greatest."