Michael Phelps is king of the world.
He has won more gold medals at the Olympics than anyone else. His eight golds this summer likely never will be eclipsed.
He is above comparison.
In interviews, Phelps has said if he were to do it over again the results likely would be different. He thought that extra half-stroke he took at the end of the butterfly cost him the race. It won him the race. And if any of his teammates had let him down, his "team" gold medals would have melted away.
We forget that swimming is also a team sport. It's impossible to rate accomplishments without other factors.
But that doesn't stop commentators and newspaper pundits from trying. The debate rages now over who is the greatest Olympian of all. Does Phelps eclipse Bruce Jenner? Or does Jenner's varied skills make him better? And how does Phelps stack up as an athlete when set against Jim Thorpe, Michael Jordan or even Tiger Woods?
The bickering is mostly to create conflict and by extension interest that drives readership and viewership. But in recent years the practice of ranking everything has become a nasty American habit. All things must fit snugly into a best, second best, third best pattern all the way down to 500th. We do it with movies, sports moments, even attractive women.
The funny thing is, such comparisons are pointless. In the case of Phelps, for all anyone knows that ancient messenger who ran the 26 miles from Athens to Marathon and died was the most gifted jock of them all.
We waste a lot of time comparing people.
Perhaps it's time for Americans to adopt a practice that is popular in Asian cultures. Rather than rank people so there's one winner and a long list of losers, they offer up "groups" of accomplished individuals. In a poetry competition there won't be a "best poem" but a collection of poetry for readers to enjoy.
Instead of a photo of "the greatest," the image that emerges is a group picture of people who deserve our respect.
That would be a healthier way to look at the nation's Olympic athletes. Each gets to stand on a pedestal around the modern Parthenon. Jenner is there, Jesse Owens, Mary Lou Retton, Carl Lewis. And, of course, Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps. And rather than bicker about which pedestal should be the tallest, we could simply admire them all.
It would make their lives and ours a bit simpler and much more rewarding.