Michael Phelps stirring butterfly leg on Saturday led the US medley relay to victory and Phelps to his eighth gold medal of the Games. Even before the Baltimore native broke Mark Spitz’s 36-year old record, many (especially the US media) had crowned him the “greatest Olympian ever”. However, while Phelps has won more gold medals than anyone ever (he has won 14) and on that measure is the best swimmer ever to swim, the 23-year-old is at least one more Olympics away from being the greatest ever athlete.
Phelp’s claim to greatness is somewhat exaggerated by the quantum of gold medal he has won. As David Miller noted in the Telegraph, swimmers receive an innate advantage in the ability to win multiple medals:
Firstly, there is no weight-stress load on the joints as competitors are suspended in water, a unique medium. This grants them a different recovery ratio, and they do not require the quite different muscle fibres that, for instance, separate the 100-metre track sprinter and the 5000m runner. But, genius is genius in whatever field, be it as simple as swimming.
Secondly, the international swimming federation FINA permit such a variety of combined, or medley events and relays, that a wider range is available for competitors than in any other sport barring gymnastics. Phelps is symptomatic of this, as were Ian Thorpe in Athens, Kristine Otto with her six medals in 1988 and Spitz with his seven in 1972.
Swimming and gymnastics command a disproportionate number of medals compared with other sports. In Phelps’ case, only four of his 11 golds over two Games have come from straight events. Three were from medleys and four from relays.
As Miller noted, swimming’s advantages (and the depth of the United States talent) has allowed Phelps and before him Spitz to win more than a dozen gold medals. But of those 14 medals, he has won individual gold in only three disciplines (butterfly, freestyle and medley) — five of his gold medals were won in strong US relay teams. That is not to detract from the phenomenal athlete that Phelps is, and as a mere 23 year old he has plenty of swimming in front of him. US star Dara Torres, who was touched out for silver in the 50 meters freestyle yesterday, is eighteen years his elder.
However, there are a number of athletes who would still place above Phelps in terms of overall “greatness”. Sir Stephen Redgrave, who won gold medals in rowing at five consecutive Olympics (Redgrave as a rower was not able to compete in the breadth of events that Phelps or Spitz were). Even better may have been the performances of German kayaker Brigit Fischer over a staggering 24 years. Fisher won gold in 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 (she wasn’t able to compete in 1984 due to the Soviet boycott) — the only factor working against Fischer is the fact that the golds were won in the lower profile sport of kayaking.
Finnish middle-distance runner Paavo Nurmi won gold in middle distance running in 1920, 1924 and 1928. He probably would have won in 1932 had he not been deemed a professional. He would also be above Phelps in the “Greatest Ever” stakes, however, one factor working against Nurmi is that he competed in an era before widespread participation — only 29 nations competed in the 1920 Antwerp games. Similarly, the achievements of Emil Zatopek, who won the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and marathon in 1952 (as well as the 10,000 meters in 1948). He was arguably superior to Phelps and Spitz.
Make no mistake, Michael Phelps is the Greatest Swimmer Ever. But he is still four years and a gold medal away from being the Greatest Olympian Ever.