Is Phelps the greatest? Rivals for his Olympic crown think not

Aug 1, 2012
Jonathan Harwood

Redgrave and Johnson are not convinced Phelps is the greatest, despite 19th medal

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MICHAEL PHELPS became the most decorated Olympian ever last night when he won his 19th medal, and his 15th gold, as he anchored the US men's 4x200m relay swimming team to glory in the pool. But while many hailed the swimmer as the greatest Olympian ever there were some notable nay-sayers, including a few who could lay claim to the title themselves.

Talking on the BBC, American sprinter Michael Johnson, who won four Olympic golds including the 200m and 400m double at Atlanta in 1996, stood by his claim that Jesse Owens was the greatest, and insisted: "When you talk about greatest Olympian it’s not about medals and the medal count."

He pointed out that swimmers were able to compete for more medals than other athletes and went as far as to suggest that despite his latest successes, Phelps would regard London 2012 as "a let down and a disappointment". He added that the swimmer, who is retiring after the Games, "recognises that it's time to move on".

Those sentiments were echoed by Steve Redgrave. The British rower's claim to greatness is based on his five Olympic golds won over the course of 16 years, so it comes as no surprise that he noted how Phelps, who won the first of his medals at Athens in 2004, lacked longevity.

"How do you rank greatness?" asked the oarsman in The Daily Telegraph. "With 15 gold medals, he already has to be listed as one of the finest Olympic athletes ever, and yet I still believe his feat would have been more impressive if he achieved it over six or seven Games."

The great Carl Lewis, who won nine track and field golds, has yet to pronounce on Phelps's achievement, but the LA Times said the sprinter and long jumper remained the greatest.

But writing in Sports Illustrated, columnist Michael Farber eloquently dismissed the anti-Phelps brigade as "honourable pedants and poets who are overthinking the issue".

"The heft of numbers occasionally does not need footnotes," he wrote. "Anyone who dissects his career and finds anything other than the pinnacle of Olympic achievement is trying too hard."

As if to back that up, The Guardian noted: "If Phelps were a country, he would be 59th in the world league table of Olympic medal winners."

Among those paying tribute on Twitter were IOC president Jacques Rogge who praised his "unique achievement" and footballer Pele, another sportsman who many regard as the greatest of all time, and one who knows that people will never agree on such matters.

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How about number of gold medals as proportion of events entered - so the likes of Steve Redgrave would be miles ahead. If athletics had events for running backwards and running with a silly walk then Carl Lewis would be ahead...

I think people just need to watch the old Latynina videos to put this in perspective.