As Fonzie once said, or at least tried to say, “I was wrr- …, I was wrrooo … OK, I was not right.” Michael Phelps is the GOAT – he is the greatest Olympian of all-time.
I kept resisting this idea, that a swimmer, who gets the opportunity to compete in far more events than most Olympians, was the greatest simply because of his absurd medal count. But the numbers are out of reach. I admit it.
I had, until Rio, always stood up for a guy many of you do not know, Al Oerter. Who? Oerter was a discus thrower who won gold medals in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968. More importantly, it was the way he won them. He never won the US Olympic Trials. He never led the yearly discus throw list going into the Olympics. He was never a favorite, although maybe co-favorite in 1960. At each Olympics he set a personal best. At each Olympics he broke the Olympic record. At each Olympics he simply came through, as has no other Olympian, to win the discus gold medal.
When others spoke of Carl Lewis, or Phelps, or Paavo Nurmi, I would admit they were good choices, but there was something romantic, almost mystical, about this systems engineer, Oerter, the true amateur, who once said, “There is no job, no money, no amount of power, that can match the Olympic experience.” And who also said, after his Tokyo 1964 gold medal, won despite immense pain from a torn rib cartilage and a months old lingering neck injury, “These are the Olympics. You die for them.”
But I can no longer ignore Phelps’ medal counts. There are no adequate words to describe them, although of course, I will try (why else would I be writing this?).
I have a good friend named Steve Rerych, who you do not know, though perhaps you should. He is a cardiac surgeon with whom I trained in residency. Steve won 2 gold medals in relay swimming at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Two of his teammates were Mark Spitz and Don Schollander (another swimmer sadly lost in the mist of Olympic history). Of Spitz, Rerych once told me, “He’s a fish, not a human being.” Steve explained that Spitz really didn’t train as hard as many swimmers, he wasn’t the hardest worker, but he had an innate ability to swim faster than anybody else in the world. He would simply hop in the pool, proclaim he would set a world record today, and often did.
Phelps has similar innate ability, whether it is his physiognomy, his cardio-respiratory output, his technical prowess, or whatever it is. He combines this with what was very hard work, at least through the 2008 Olympics, and probably since 2014, making him the greatest swimmer the world has ever seen.
Phelps has won in a myriad of manners. He won as a youth in Athens, challenging Spitz’s 7 Munich gold medals when Phelps won 6. He sparkled at the height of his powers in Beijing, winning a record 8 gold medals, albeit aided by the 4×100 freestyle anchor leg of Jazon Lezak, who held off France’s Alain Bernard. Phelps struggled at London in 2012, coming off an alcohol and marijuana fog of the past 4 years, but still won 4 gold medals, while his coach, Bob Bowman, said he was really only going through the motions. And he was resplendent in Rio de Janeiro, winning 5 gold medals at a swimmer’s fossil-like age of 31.
Phelps’ numbers simply make my arguments for Oerter difficult to support any more, no matter how much I admired the man. Consider a few besides the simply astronomical count of 23 golds and 28 medals.
- Phelps has won 5 or more gold medals at 3 Olympics (2004, 2008, 2016). Only 9 other Olympians have 5 gold medals at an Olympics, and none has done so at more than 1.
- Phelps has won 4 or more gold medals at 4 consecutive Olympics (2004-16). Only 29 Olympians have won 4 medals at an Olympics. Three of them have done it more than 1 time – Bjørn Dæhlie (NOR-CCS), Larysa Latynina (URS-GYM), and Phelps, who has done it as often as Dæhlie and Latynina combined.
- Phelps has won 6 or more medals at 4 consecutive Olympics (2004-16). Only 30 Olympians have won 6 medals at one Olympics, and besides Phelps, only Latynina (3 times) and Aleksey Nemov (twice) (RUS-GYM) have done it more than once.
- If he were an NOC, Phelps would now be tied for 38th on the all-time most gold medals won list. He would now be 50th on the all-time most medals won list.
- Phelps has won 28 medals – only two other Olympians have won at least half that number – Larysa Latynina (URS-GYM) with 18, and Nikolay Andrianov (URS-GYM) with 15.
- With 23 gold medals, Phelps has more than 2½ times the next four best Olympians, who have won 9 – Paavo Nurmi (FIN-ATH), Carl Lewis (USA-ATH), Larysa Latynina (URS-GYM), and Mark Spitz (USA-SWI).
Look at that last stat – Phelps has more than 2½ times the gold medals of Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, and Larysa Latynina, and those four have always been considered among the Olympic GOATs.
I give. Phelps is the Olympic GOAT.