Michael Phelps owns 16 Olympic medals, 14 of them gold.
He won a record eight gold medals in these Beijing Olympics.
He might not be finished. He'll be just 27 years old at the next Olympics.
Some people are calling Phelps the greatest Olympian ever.
The Greatest Olympian should not be determined simply by the number of medals he or she has won. For one thing, swimmers, along with gymnasts, have more opportunities to medal than athletes in other sports, because of the nature of the sport. The events are similar enough, and recovery time between them is much more manageable, allowing swimmers to compete in more races.
The stress that is placed on the body by a weight-bearing sport such as track is much greater than the stress of a non-weight bearing sport such as swimming. It's much more difficult for track athletes to win multiple races at the Olympic level. Only twice since 1956 has a man even managed to win both the 100- and 200-meter dashes in the same Olympics (Usain Bolt seems likely to be the third).
In swimming, it's fairly common to claim multiple victories. Why not? Three of the four strokes are fairly similar and use many of the same muscle groups. Phelps has won eight of his 16 medals (including seven gold) at one distance, 200 meters the butterfly (twice), individual medley (twice), freestyle (twice), freestyle relay (twice).
The track and field equivalent would be the 200-meter freestyle dash, the 200-meter backward dash, the 200-meter sideways dash, and the 4x200 medley (frontward, backward, sideways) relay.
For a track athlete to match Phelps' feat, he'd have to run, say, the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes, the 110-meter high hurdles, the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, the 4x100 and 4x400 relays and contest the long jump.
Ignoring the physical drain of the heats, quarterfinals and semifinals, and ignoring the lack of recovery time between races, no track athlete has that combination of talents to compete at the world-class level. For that matter, you can't even find an athlete who can win both hurdle races.
Swimmers also tend to have more longevity; track athletes usually have a shorter shelf life.
What all this adds up to is the potential for multiple medals. Consider how many swimmers are among the all-time Olympic medal winners: Phelps (16), Natalie Coughlin (12), Jenny Thompson (12), Dara Torres (12), Mark Spitz (11), Matt Biondi (11), Gary Hall Jr. (10), Franziska van Almsick (10). Of the 27 athletes who have won double-digit Olympic medals, eight are swimmers, 13 are gymnasts and two are track athletes.
My vote for the title of Greatest Olympian? Carl Lewis, hands down.
Everyone talks about the great Olympic feats of Jesse Owens, but Lewis matched Owens (four gold medals in track and field in one Olympics) and then returned for gold medals in three more Olympics.
Lewis is the only man ever to win the 100-meter dash in back-to-back Olympics. He's the only man to win the long jump in back-to-back Olympic Games and he did it four times. He won nine gold medals and one silver, and if teammates hadn't dropped the baton in the '92 Games. he would have won another gold in the sprint relay. He also made the 1980 Olympic team in the long jump and 4x100 relay, but was unable to compete because of the U.S.-led boycott.
Other contenders for the top 10 list of greatest Olympians:
• Nadia Comaneci. In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, at age 14, she scored the first perfect 10 on the uneven bars. The scoreboards were not even equipped to display scores of 10 her marks were displayed as 1.00. She went on to score a total of seven perfect 10s while winning the gold medal in the all-around, beam and uneven bars, plus a bronze medal on the floor exercise and a silver for Romania's finish in the team competition. Nowadays, Comaneci would have been barred from competition athletes must be at least 16.
• Fanny Blankers Koen. After losing her prime years to World War II (the Olympics were canceled for 12 years), she returned for the 1948 Games as the "Flying Housewife." By then, she was a 30-year-old housewife with two children and in the early stages of her third pregnancy. She won the 100, 200, hurdles and 4x100 relay. She remains the only female track athlete to match Lewis' and Owens' feat of winning four golds in a single Olympics. She probably would have won six gold medals, but rules limited athletes to three individual events, which meant she couldn't compete in the high jump and long jump, which were won with marks that were inferior to Fanny's world records in those events. In 1999, the IAAF voted her its female Athlete of the Century.
• Paavo Nurmi. The "Flying Finn" won the 1,500- and 5,000-meter runs with 26 minutes of rest between them in 1924, then won three more gold medals in distance races (two of them for team placement). He probably would have won the 10,000-meter race, as well, but Finnish team officials feared for his health and refused to enter him in the race. Later that season, he set the world record in the 10,000 and then won that race in the Olympics four years later. Medal count: 9 gold, 3 silver. He planned to run in the '32 Games, but was banned for competition because it was decided he had violated the rules of "amateurism" by accepting too much money for traveling expenses.
• Emil Zatopek. A Czech, he won the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon in the '52 Olympics, and nobody knew about blood doping in those days. It's a ridiculous distance-running triple crown. He also won the 5,000 four years earlier.
• Larissa Latynina. She won a record 18 medals (9 gold) in three Olympics in gymnastics, a sport that is brutal on the body.
• Al Oerter. A legendary Olympic figure who had an uncanny ability to respond to pressure and competition, he won the discus in four straight Olympics with four Olympic records. He overcame auto accidents, an injured neck that required him to wear a special harness, favored opponents, and coming from behind.
• Jesse Owens. Another iconic figure, he won four golds in Hitler's 1936 Olympics.
• Michael Phelps. Enough said.
E-mail: [email protected]