As the headline for Michael Farber's column this morning on Si.com reads: "It's beyond dispute: Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time"
Just about says it all, doesn't it? With his 19 Olympic medals over three Summer Olympic Games, American swimmer Michael Phelps is being swamped in the rush to superlatives, the tidal wave of adulation as pundits all over the world scramble to name him the Greatest Olympian Of All Time (GOOAT).
Now, before all you Phelps fans out there start sharpening your verbal knives to attack me, read the following carefully: I believe that Michael Phelps is one of the greatest Olympians of all time. He is a phenomenal athlete who has consistently performed at an exceptionally high level under the greatest pressure possible and proven himself over a long period of time. And, as importantly, he seems like a really nice guy: gracious, humble, funny, likable, generous to his teammates and competition alike. A true Olympian.
But is he really the GOOAT?
On the basis of all of the above, maybe. He's surely as good as they come. But Farber, in his over-the-top commentary, founds his claim that Phelps is the GOOAT on sheer number of medals - Farber writes: "The heft of numbers occasionally does not need footnotes. They eloquently state their own case. Phelps has won 19 medals, a record 15 of them gold, including this swim in the 4x200 free relay. Game, set and -- pretty much -- match. There is no "yes, but," capable of sustaining prolonged debate."
Frankly, I think that argument is a pile of bull.
Because, if you base an argument on who is truly the GOOAT solely on the basis of number of medals, you are limiting the competition to swimmers. Okay, maybe a gymnast stands a chance or even a runner or a speed skater. But no athlete in any other sport can possibly enter the discussion.
Why? It's simple math.
A single swimmer can enter as many as, let's see if I get this right, 12 events in each Summer Olympic games, even if he limits himself to events of 200 metres or less: he's got four different strokes (breast, butterfly, back and free), two distances (100 and 200 metres), and additional team relay races to choose from. If, like Phelps, he enters the 400 metre individual medley, he's up to 13 possible events.
Phelps has limited himself to eight events. He's a butterfly and freestyle specialists so he's left the butterfly and the backstroke pretty much to others. Great. But by my calculations, Phelps' eight events is still three more events per Olympics than any other athlete in any other sport could possibility enter. Over the course of Phelps' Olympic Games, that's fifteen more opportunities to win medals than any non-swimmer could ever have enjoyed.
A runner on the track can enter, what four, maybe five events? If she's a sprinter, she's got the 100, 200, the two team relays in those distances and, like Carl Lewis, maybe the long jump. Okay, she can push it to six or seven if she enters the 400 metre events or perhaps the hurdles but I don't recall any athlete who has successfully competed in both the sprint and 400 metre events or the sprints and the hurdles.
A gymnast is tied to just five possible medals in any Games. Four individual events and the team all-around.
Speed skaters face similar limitations to those of track athletes.
And the vast majority of athletes have just one event: a competitor in boxing, judo, wrestling weightlifting or other similar sports, for example, can't move up and down in weight classes to try to earn more medals.
Team athletes can only win one medal per games.
Maybe down-hill skiers can compete in the downhill, the slalom, the giant slalom and the super gee, but that's just four.
So do the math:
Phelps has earned 19 medals to date in three Olympics;
A gymnast would have to medal in every event available to her over four Olympics to beat that;
Same with a sprinter or a speed skater;
A skier would have to compete in five Olympics and win every event.
I'm not saying Phelps doesn't deserve consideration. I'm just saying that judging the GOOAT question simply on the basis of number of medals won is an unfair competition. You have to consider other factors and, if you do, then Phelps has got some serious competition out there.
Take, for example, Carl Lewis. From 1984 to 1996, the American sprinter won 9 Gold and 1 Silver medal in four different Summer Games. He won in the 100, the 200, the 4 x 100 and the long jump. He competed for longer than Phelps has (to this point), represented his country in exemplary fashion and won medals in two distinct disciplines (sprinting and long jump). He might have won more but, while you can travel 100 metres in a pool using four different strokes, there's only really one way to move 100 metres on a track.
And, as I said the other day, Canadian diver Natalie Heymans deserves some consideration for GOOAT (as do, most likely, many other athletes with similar credentials). Hymans has medalled in four Olympics as well, competing in only one diving event in each. And she's medalled in three different diving events: platform, platform synchro, and springboard synchro.
But, for me, the GOOAT is Canadian cyclist and speed skater Clara Hughes. Hughes is my GOOAT because she's won medals over the past 16 years in both the Summer and the Winter Games. That's not something many people have done. The Winnipeg native won two cycling bronzes in 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, then won a bronze at Salt Lake City's Winter Games (2002) in the 5000 metre speed skating competition. She did herself one better four years later winning a Gold at Turin in the 5000 metres and a silver in the team pursuit competition.
In 2010, she won another bronze in the 5000 meter skate. She's now the only athlete ever to win multiple medals in both the Summer and the Winter Olympics.
Hughes, now 39, is actually competing again in London in some cycling events.
She doesn't have the "heft of numbers" that Phelps has when it comes to medals but Hughes has proven herself an incredibly versatile athlete, performing at a world-class level in two very different sports for a longer time. As a person, like Phelps, she exemplifies the Olympic spirit.
So make your arguments that Michael Phelps is the GOOAT and I'll give them fair consideration but don't try to suggest to me that Phelps is the greatest simply because he's won 19 medals (so far). The math just doesn't support the argument.