Phelps has the most medals, but does most mean best?

The Associated Press
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U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps listens to a question during a press conference held at the media center of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Phelps won his first individual gold medal of the London Games Thursday, bringing his career Olympic medal total to 20, of which 16 are gold. With more Olympic medals — and far more gold medals — than anyone else in history, Phelps has been pegged by many as the greatest Olympic athlete ever. However, others say it’s impossible to be that definite. — Photo by The Associated Press

The greatest? When it comes to Michael Phelps, the answer seems obvious with just a cursory glance of the medals table. The guy has won 16 golds and has a couple more races to extend the record into almost unfathomable territory before he’s done in London.

Phelps added to his totals Thursday, winning the 200-metre individual medley for his first individual gold in London, bringing his haul of career Olympic medals to 20.

Phelps plans to retire after his these Olympics, his fourth — but not before another swim. He qualified later Thursday for today’s 100-metre butterfly final, winning his semifinal in 50.86, the fastest qualifying time.

“He’s definitely the greatest Olympian of all time,” said South African swimmer Chad le Clos, who’s actually one of the few guys to have beaten Phelps at the Olympics and who will face Phelps in the 100m butterfly final

Indeed, the numbers are mind-boggling:

• Start with the golds. Phelps has seven more than anyone else.

• Soviet-era gymnast Larisa Latynina previously held the record for total medals, winning 18 over a span of three Olympics from 1956-64. From there, the dropoff is significant. Next on the list is another Soviet gymnast, Nikolai Andrianov, with 15 medals. Three others captured 13. Just 23 more — in both Summer and Winter Games — have as many as 10. If Phelps was a nation, he would be tied for 57th on the Summer Games medal list and closing in on India, the second-most populous nation on the globe.

• Phelps won the most gold medals at a single games, his eight-race sweep in Beijing four years ago. In retrospect, the Great Haul of China looks even more impressive. While it’s said every record is made to be broken, it’s hard to see anyone topping that mark. Equaling it at best, and that will be tough enough.

But the greatest?

That’s where things get a bit dicier. And while the sporting world peppers him with praise, no less an authority than Sebastian Coe was reticent to bestow the ultimate crown.

“My personal view is I’m not sure he’s the greatest,” Lord Coe said on Wednesday, speaking as a two-time gold medallist in athletics and the face of these games as head of the London organizing committee. “But he’s certainly the most successful."

This is the great global pub game. Who is the greatest athlete of all time?

“Whether he’s the greatest, I don’t know. I could go around this whole room and we’d come up with different interpretations. You’d have to say he’s up there. Is he the greatest? In my opinion, probably not. But my opinion means no more than anyone else’s.”

Coe was pressed for his choice. If not Phelps, who?

“I could throw out a whole series of names,” Coe said. “I could throw out Steve Redgrave, Daley Thompson,” a couple of home-country faves. “If I wanted to go back a few generations and recall what Jesse Owens did in 1936, it was unbelievable. Nadia Comaneci. I don’t know. It’s the great local pub game.”

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge also was hesitant to put Phelps above everyone else.

“Definitely one of the greatest,” Rogge told The Associated Press. “You cannot reduce everything to the medals. What Larisa Latynina has done with 18 medals and Michael has done with 19 medals is unequaled and is probably going to stay like this for decades to come. But there are other issues that both have. Personality. Larisa is a wonderful personality. Michael is a wonderful personality. There are great iconic athletes who have not won that many medals, but definitely it is a landmark.”

Rogge, too, was pushed to name others he would put alongside Phelps.

“I’m not going to make an exhaustive list,” he replied, “but there are legendary athletes like Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens and many more that are really idols and icons of the sport.”

Indeed, it’s worth noting that Phelps and Latynina are, or were, in sports where it’s possible to win multiple events at a single Games. Compare that with someone such as a pole vaulter, weightlifter or boxer, and with team sport players like basketball star LeBron James, who is at the top of his game but can only win one gold medal — no more than one medal, period — every four years. And while Phelps swims an impressive array of events, encompassing all four strokes and ranging in distance from 100 to 400 metres, it’s hard to discount Nurmi winning five gold medals at the 1924 Games, including the 1,500 and 5,000 less than two hours apart. Lewis has to be considered for his versatility, winning everything from sprints to relays to the long jump.

“There are a ton of athletes that are in the conversation,” retired sprinter Maurice Greene said. “You could debate it for hours and hours. It’s hard to say someone is THE greatest. You have different eras.

“Eight years from now, it might be someone who comes by and does something far greater than (Phelps) did, in a different event and a different sport and get more gold medals than that.”

 This is a corrected version


Organizations: International Olympic Committee, The Associated Press

Geographic location: London, India, Beijing China

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Recent comments

  • canadafirstaid
    August 05, 2012 - 12:08

    Let's see if I have this right. Canada sits in about 10th. or 11th. position. Right? The US is on top with 5 times more (medals) then us. That is thanks, to a large degree, to a swimmer by the name of Phelps. Ya, he is the best and will likely remain the best for a long time to come. cfa

    • John Bines
      August 19, 2012 - 14:37

      @CANADAFIRSTAID. 5 times more THEN us? Than not then! 5 times more THAN us. Learn proper grammar before posting on the internet please. And since Canada won the last winter olympics (the only ones that count anyway!), who really cares? Too (notice the correct use of TOO) bad that China didn't beat out the USA. I really didn't care who won as long as it wasn't the USA. But, they are the best this time around and proved it by an over all win.

  • Hello
    August 03, 2012 - 08:51

    Please review and re-write this article. Does not read or flow properly. "The guy has won 16 golds and has more total couple more races to extend the record into almost unfathomable territory before he’s done in London." "who’s actually one of the few guys to have beaten Phelps at the Olympics and who will l face Phelps in the 100m butterfly final"