A debate is raging on Twitter and elsewhere over a timely topic: Is Michael Phelps a slam-dunk choice as the greatest Olympian of all time? Swimming commentator Rowdy Gaines says it’s not even a debate, while others have the made the case for everyone from Jim Thorpe to Usain Bolt. It’s true that Phelps has plenty of company in the Olympic pantheon, but is he the greatest?
Below, I identify a few candidates, present them in no particular order and make my selection. This is far from an exhaustive list, so I invite you to nominate other candidates on Twitter via @AthlonDoster.
Michael Phelps, USA, Swimming
One school of thought: He who has the most medals is the best. By that metric, it’s no contest. Phelps has 21 (17 of them gold) as of this writing, more than any other individual athlete.
I can anticipate the primary objection: He also has had far more opportunities to medal than athletes in other sports. Well, here’s my counter-argument to that: So does every other swimmer, and Phelps has left them all floundering in his considerable wake. Mark Spitz, the man to whom Phelps has so often been compared, finished with 11 medals; Phelps could finish with twice that many. The fact that he also set or helped set 16 World, Olympic and U.S. records is another formidable resume enhancer.
Jesse Owens, USA, Track
Owens achieved what many thought was out of reach for a single athlete: gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4×100m relay and long jump, a quartet of golds that wouldn’t be equaled for 48 years. His performance under Hitler’s gaze in a wordless but eloquent repudiation of the Nazi regime made him synonymous with American Olympic excellence.
Carl Lewis, USA, Track
Lewis replicated the feats of his idol Owens and did him a little better, achieving gold over four separate Olympiads in an extended sequence of track-and-field excellence that will never be eclipsed. Lewis dominated the 1984 Los Angeles games, earning gold in the 100m, 200m, 4×100m relay and long jump to match Owens’ 1936 performance in Berlin. Lewis added golds in 1988 in the 100m (after Ben Johnson’s doping disqualification) and long jump; in 1992 in the 4×100m relay and long jump; and in 1996 in the long jump at the grand old age of 35. Lewis remains the only man to defend an Olympic 100 meter or long jump title successfully.
Michael Johnson, USA, Track
Entering the 1996 Atlanta Games under a crushing burden of hype, Johnson dazzled the world in his gold cleats, winning an unprecedented 200m-400m double. For the only time in history, the title of World’s Fastest Man went by proclamation to the 200m champion after Johnson’s world record time of 19.32 seconds.
Al Oerter, USA, Discus
Oerter competed in a niche event, but his longevity and sustained level of world-class performance — gold medals in the discus in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968 — made him a legend. He carried the Olympic flame into the stadium at the 1996 Atlanta games in a fitting coda to his unparalleled career.
Wilma Rudolph, USA, Track
Rudolph ran with an astounding level of grace and ease, dazzling the world at the 1960 Games in Rome with three gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4×100m relay. Overcoming poverty and childhood bouts with polio and other serious illnesses and starring at the dawn of the television age made her perhaps the most inspirational figure in Olympics history.
Usain Bolt, Jamaica, Track
There’s a certain glamour attached to the winner of the Olympic 100m gold medal — he carries the title of World’s Fastest Man and is the de facto king of the games. Throw in the fastest time in human history at the time, accomplished while pulling up at the finish line, and you’ve got a true legend. Bolt astounded at the 2008 Beijing Games running a record 9.69 and starting his celebration about 10 meters from the finish line (he later lowered the record to 9.58). If he defends his title in equally stunning fashion, he might just add the title of greatest Olympian.
Nadia Comaneci, Romania, Gymnastics
She taught us all that perfection was possible. Comaneci earned seven perfect-10 scores during the 1976 Montreal Olympics –‹ the scoreboard displayed them all as 1.0, since the need had never arisen for the extra digit — and won three gold medals, one of them the All Around gold. She added two more golds at the 1980 Moscow Games before fleeing dictatorship and settling in America, an ambassador for her sport.
Paavo Nurmi, Finland, Track
The Flying Finn won nine gold medals and three silvers as the world’s greatest middle- and long-distance runner in the 1920s and was denied the opportunity to win more in 1932 after losing his amateur status due to his acceptance of travel reimbursement. His 12 track and field medals remain an Olympic record.
Edwin Moses, USA, Track
He competed in a single event — the 400m hurdles — but he did it in such dominant fashion over such an extended period that he belongs on any list of greatest Olympians. Moses won gold in 1976 and 1984 and would certainly have won gold in 1980 had the U.S. not boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Moses won 122 consecutive races — 107 of them finals — and set four world records in his event between 1977 and 1987.
Sometimes, social impact combines with athletic achievement to create true transcendence. It happened with Jackie Robinson, and it certainly happened with history’s greatest Olympian, Jesse Owens.