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The author sits on the steps of the acropolis in Athens, Greece, very near the birthplace of the Olympics.
The author sits on the steps of the acropolis in Athens, Greece, very near the birthplace of the Olympics.
Michael Phelps is truly great, but not the 'greatest Olympian ever'
By Tom Boyd

August 13, 2008 — Time and again, NBC announcers have called that Phelps “The Greatest Olympian ever,” or “of all time,” thereby doing a great disservice to all the many thousands of other Olympians.

It’s a matter of mathematics. Seventeen gold medals will be given away in men’s swimming alone this year, compared to one in basketball, tennis, baseball, and other team sports. Thirty four medals in all will be given away in swimming, a near comical number. The next closest is wrestling, which gives away 18. It’s the opposite approach in pentathalon, where one must compete in five disparate sports to win only one medal.

Consider that Roger Federer is competing in Olympic tennis in 2008 and is clearly one of the greatest athletes of all time … is it really so clear that Phelps is, “the greatest ever,” when athletes like Federer are competing a few miles away? I think the only things proven by Phelps’ medal count is that he is a great athlete, and that swimming gives away too many medals.

By the logic of the pundits (who include writers from ESPN, CNN, and elswhere), Olympians who can only win one medal per Games are just a bunch of slugs. Notice to sporting authorities: if you want your athletes to become famous, add 30 new categories of competition to your sport, then claim greatness by way of gold count.

The absurdities of Olympic coverage have become so commonplace as to almost defy comment … but having personally watched hundred of “Great Olympic” biathletes give their heart and soul to their sport in 2006 – quietly and without just reward – I just can't let this one slide.



Comment on article  4 Comments on "Michael Phelps is truly great, but not the 'greatest Olympian ever'"


David Dolan — August 13, 2008

Concur. Medal count stands-in as hype fodder. Media love "Greatest Ever" story-lines, easy to follow, simple for Central Moronia citizens.


Shane — August 13, 2008

To claim Phelps is only great because of the vastness of his sport is absurd, Federer couldn't do 17 tennis matchs in the short amount of time Phelps is doing 17 races, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis couldn't win 17 races when Athetlics offers 43 different venues to claim gold in.


Jim — August 14, 2008

Pehlps is the "Greatest Olympian ever" simply by virtue of the way we define greatness in the Games -- medal count and world records broken. You can make a fair argument that this definition is inherently biased towards swimming simply due to the sheer number of iterations and medals it has, but it is the definition that the IOC has established and the world has accepted, for the most part.


James — August 15, 2008

Just because swimming gives out more medals doesn't mean it is any easier to get one. Tennis in the Olympics has 172 athletes so it is safe to assume that half of that is men. In swimming there are 800 athletes so it is safe to assume that 400 are competing for a medal. Federer only has to be better than 86 athletes while Phelps has to be better than 400. Now I am only talking in figurative terms so some of these athletes don't actually perform in these two athletes events, whether it be because of doubles in tennis or they do not do that certain stoke in swimming, but the numbers are overwhelming in Phelp's favor. Also I am pretty sure that no other athlete could get that many medals in such little time. So all in favor of Phelps being the greatest Olympian athlete, I raise my hand proudly.



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