This message has been prevalent during the London 2012 Olympic Games: Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympic athlete of all time and has the hardware to prove it. Countless articles have been written to this effect in the aftermath of the American swimmer’s record-breaking 22 medals.
However, the certainty surrounding Phelps’s coronation is fading. Many are suggesting that Phelps is the best swimmer of all time, the best American athlete of all time and many other claims about his remarkable athletic career. Such arguments are superficial at best and needlessly contrarian at worst. More importantly, what actual purpose does such a debate serve towards the celebration of an achievement?
Those who argue against Phelps as the greatest athlete of all time struggle to place athletes inside of their own time period, instead relying on what-if scenarios. For instance, Mark Spitz, who Phelps surpassed as the greatest swimmer of all time, retired early after the 1972 Games in Munich after setting a seemingly insurmountable record. His stated reason for retirement was achieving all he possibly could — the same reason Phelps is retiring at 27 — and an unsteady financial future for him in swimming.
One has to wonder how long he would have gone on had there been the opportunity for financial stability through lucrative corporate endorsements in 1972.
Jesse Owens is another athlete contested to be one of the best of all time. His career was cut short by the American racial climate and WWII. These claims may not be off-base, but they simply don’t serve any logical purpose in the evaluation of Phelps’s performance in the present day.
It is easy to postulate that any number of athletes from a variety of different sports have experienced different challenges unique to their sport and time period. It is also clear that when another athlete surpasses or equals Phelps, the same debate will occur.
Another common problem is placing the athletes in a larger context. For example, who is to say that Phelps’s 22 medals in the pool is more impressive than Steve Redgrave’s six gold medals in rowing from 1984 to 2000 or Clara Hughes’s six medals over the course of four separate winter and summer Olympics?
Arguments about the inherent athleticism required for each sport are never ending, and subjective at best. Some point out that swimming hands out an unusually high amount of medals. However, this line of thinking ignores the fact that it took 24 years before Phelps broke Mark Spitz’s record of seven golds in a single Games.
However, this reasoning shows that Olympic greatness is not necessarily measured by medal count. Debating whether Phelps’s record is the greatest is a waste of energy in this regard. “Greatest” has a different meaning for everyone — the debate is subjective at best, and risks becoming meaningless when taken to the extreme.
The debate about the degree of difficulty needlessly splits hairs, perhaps to the point of denigration. For instance, some exclude gymnasts from the discussion because a judged sport is inherently subjective.
Regardless of whether you think Phelps is the greatest of all time or not, it is unnecessary to subject him to needless comparisons. It reduces the Olympics to a fantasy sports draft, and obscures the enjoyment of the moment.
As it stands, ranking athletes based on historical era is a parlour game — a nearly impossible exercise in objectivity that leaves one to simply evaluate the facts and the medal count. The best we can do is appreciate historic moments when they happen and be content with witnessing athletic greatness in any sport.