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Who is the greatest Olympian? Clue: it’s not Michael Phelps

August 12, 2008

Phelps with his third Beijing goldMichael Phelps is a phenomenal swimmer, possibly the best in history, and if he achieves his target of eight gold medals in Beijing, for an overall tally of 14 (10 of them individual) there is no doubt that he deserves his place in the pantheon.

But the greatest-ever Olympian? That is a big call.

There is no denying that it is tough to win an Olympic swimming gold but, once you reach that standard, there are plenty to harvest. Many of the top swimmers seem capable of racing over 100 metres, 200, 400, often in a variety of strokes, plus the medley, and also seemingly have relays for just about every distance.

In athletics it is extremely rare for a 100 metres runner to go as high as 400 and even if they could, the qualification rounds would be too draining to have any hope of adding the 200 as well.  

To get on a par with swimming the Games would have to introduce the track races over 50, 150, and 250 metres (plus relays of course). They would have to get creative to match the medley, perhaps 50 metres of sprinting, 50 of hurdling and 50 of running backwards — and get three friends together and there’s another medal to shoot for.

Carl Lewis, who won nine golds, including four in a row for long jump, has a much greater claim and he would certainly give himself the vote.

In the early days of the Games the field event programme resembled modern swimming — so much so that Ray Ewry mined eight golds over three Olympics, all from his basic talent of jumping.

Somebody must have decided they were cheap medals as standing long, high and triple jump had all disappeared by the 1920s.

Larysa Latynina won has nine golds but in a sport where the medals are even cheaper than swimming — gymnastics — her challenge falls, as does that of Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich, who won six gold medals between 1932 and 1960 … because he is a fencer.

German canoeist Birgit Fischer won eight golds over six different Olympics, managing to represent East and united Germany in the process. She won her first at 18 and last at 42 but Finn Paavo Nurmi has the biggest overall haul of athletics medals with 12 and certainly has a claim to be the greatest runner, though his haul also included relay golds, and at cross-country at that.

Emil Zatopek, who in 1952 won 5,000 metres, 10,000 and marathon — in his first attempt at the distance — and also won the 10,000 four years earlier, is also a contender.

Al Oerter matches Lewis  by winning the same event in four successive Olympics but though discus conjures up great traditional ancient Olympic images, hurling it a long way for a lot of years is not quite enough.

You can’t ignore the claims of two men who were crowned the greatest all-round athlete in the world, not once but twice — Bob Mathias and Daley Thompson.

The decathlon might not have the glamour of the 100 metres or the tradition of the 1,500 metres but it is the ultimate test of all-round strength, speed and agility — ergo, it produces the best sportsman.

Mathias, who won the 1948 decathlon as a teenager and retained the title with the biggest winning margin seen at that point set a high bar. Thompson triumphed in 1980 and 84 and though they were boycott years, he made sure he beat any absentees elsewhere to ensure his status was not undermined.

Throw in the fact that he also competed in 1976 as an 18-year-old then dragged his battered body through the whole thing again to finish fourth in 1988, then you have the one very good athlete.

But not the greatest Olympian.

For me, and no apologies for choosing a fellow Briton, the ultimate honour goes to rower Steve Redgrave, who, in an event notorious for its physical demands and where the major sporting nations all have an interest, managed to win a remarkable five straight golds.

Overcoming illness and financial hardship to keep going in what really was an amateur sport Redgrave, with an iron will and absolute refusal to lose, drove his various team mates to remarkable feats of endurance, culminating in his fifth gold in Sydney at the age of 38.

His graciousness in victory exemplified the Olympics, even if he declined to sign up to the concept of it being the taking-part that matters.

Couldn’t agree more? Couldn’t agree less? Let us know in the comments…

PHOTO: Michael Phelps of the U.S. shows his gold medal after winning the men”s 200m freestyle swimming final at the National Aquatics Centre during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 12, 2008. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen


To use the ‘popular sport’ argument we’d only be left with running events. I’ve never swam (other than in a hot tub on holiday) and neither has anyone I know, at least in any form of competition. Quick runners can be identified in sports that nearly everyone has participated in (rugby, football, etc).

Posted by Andrew | Report as abusive

What skill is there in rowing, or swimming for that matter? A sport has got to include hand-eye coordination to be in the top flight, all the rest is pure athleticism which was okay for the ancient Greeks but not for the modern world (as proved by the popularity of soccer and NFL). Of those who won Olympic gold for me the greatest was Andre Agassi, a man with a sublime touch and also a sporting personality in the true sense of the world. In the modern world that matters much more than all the blood, sweat and tears involved in rowing.

Posted by robert w | Report as abusive

Phelps competes at events lasting from approx. 1 minute to approx. 4 minutes. If this is translated into track, that would be events of approx. 400 meters through 1500 meters in length. So, if a competitor entered the 400/800/1500 meter races, the 400 meter hurdles, the 4*400 relay, plus he would need to do the 400 meter, 400 meter hurdles, and the 800 twice(heats and finals!) he would match what Phelps is attempting (and is so far accomplishing!). So let’s be clear – what Phelps is attempting, if successful (possible even if not successful), would be by far the greatest Olympic feat ever.


As an American I don’t take offense to this article. I’m aware that there is a lot of anti-american bias out there, but with the amount of praise (much of it deserved) that Phelps has been receiving someone should offer up some other potential “best olympians”

As a rower I find it absurd that people who are so ignorant about rowing would suggest that rowing is not as competitive as other olympic sports such as track or swimming. I row for a very competitive D1 program and have many friends that swim and do track. I can say that we all have a great deal of mutual respect for the intense demands of each sport. Rowing and swimming are VERY SIMILAR in terms of the physical demands of the workouts, and I have no doubt that swimmers, rowers, and probably distance runners are the best conditioned athletes in the world.

Redgrave might not be the best olympian in history for a number of reasons, but don’t write him off because of his sport. The pool of competition in rowing is very deep and very talented, and Redgrave is the best of the best.

Posted by Matt S | Report as abusive

Well, that is a lot to chew over in a short time for the author of “the worst piece of publishing in history” and “the worst article ever written” but I’ll have a go.

First, to Bill, who wrote, “Did you really write an entire article on the greatest Olympian and not mention Jesse Owens?” and others who suggested him, I’ll agree and say yep, he deserves his place in the short list, as does Jim Thorpe, but getting everybody in was impossible and the idea was to ensure it was not entirely athletics-based.

I agree, somewhat, with some of the points about Redgrave being part of a team, and also, to a degree, that his sport is not one that the masses are likely to have a crack at at school. To me, though, it remains a true Olympic sport that requires immense levels of training at a hugely physically demanding level and if anything, the fact that he was the constant in changing teams and changing boats, is a point in his favour.

We could argue all day about what makes a “sport” but to write-off rowing, swimming and running because they don’t need hand-eye co-ordination would leave us with a pretty thin Olympics.

Those of you who were incredulous at my dismissal of Phelps perhaps did not notice that I described him as “a phenomenal swimmer, possibly the best in history” — hardly a dissing in anyone’s language.

I don’t doubt his conditioning, talent, dedication, determination, sportsmanship or anything else. I think he is a fantastic athlete, a credit to his sport, his country and to the Olympics.

But I stand four-square behind my assertion that there are more swimming medals available to someone at the top of that sport to to the equivalent performers in athletics and most other major sports, except perhaps gymnastics.

Jason makes a good point (“If the multitude of swimming events were really as overlapping as you imply, then there would have been a Spitz-like competitor every 4 years instead of just once before now. I think the analogy can be reversed if you said that Phelps has basically become dominant in such different strokes and distances that it is like a Track and Field athlete winning the 100, 200, 400, Both sets of hurdles, and 4×100 4×400 relays. Try doing the backstroke, breaststroke, and crawl and tell me again how similar they are… Then do them in varying distances and tell me how raw speed and endurance factor in.)

But I still say that swimmers can cover a greater range of distances and recover to do them again the same day than track athletes. That is not a judgement on the relative conditions of the athletes, just on the difference in impact on the body of running 400 metres and swimming it.

The medal count argument doesn’t wash – are you seriously suggesting that a country that does not win a single Olympic event should be top of the medal table if it scoops 200 bronzes and no golds?

To the suggestion of anti-American bias, I’ll say this. By my reckoning I discussed 12 contenders for the title and five of them were American. No other country got more than two.

And just for Dan, who asked “What kind of writer leaves out the sport of his ‘champion’ in an article about sports?” I would have thought “rower Steve Redgrave” would have covered it, but what do I know? I’m just the worst writer in the world…


Freaking limeys…

Rowing. Yeah. Sure.

Quit hatin’ on the Phelps parade. He’s the greatest. Keep in mind the amount of WORLD RECORDS he’s setting as well. Sets one, and then has to be back in the pool in an hour to do it again. End of debate. Phelps = best ever.

Posted by Derek | Report as abusive

Aside from what has been said above, what I fear most is that the new world records will not be broken any time soon after the Olympics is over. Its been publicized about the precise construction of the Water Cube and how much faster the athletes are able to go with the combination of pure athletic talent, the great pool, and the new speedo that some of the athletes are wearing. Unless these same conditions are available at upcoming events – Olympic or otherwise – how can future swimmers ever hope to break records?

As for the “greatest olympian”? Every single athlete who has beat out their competition for the chance to compete in the games. Overcoming hardship (illness, financial or otherwise) is probably a common theme among a majority of the athletes. We’ve only been privvy to the stories the press has exposed us to. I much prefer the title of another news story “Mighty Phelps becomes the most SUCCESSFUL Olympian”.

Posted by Linda | Report as abusive

Andre Agassi? “You cannot be serious” We can argue all day about whether it’s tougher to run, swim or row but everyone in every bar I’ve discussed it with – and I put in some long hours of research – thinks tennis has no place in the Olympics.


Maybe not the best ever, but we should mention Christa Luding-Rothenburger of East Germany. She won medals in both the Summer and Winter games over 3 Olympics — no small feat.

Speed Skating gold at 500 meters (1984) and 1,000m (1988), silver at 500m (1988) and bronze at 500m (1992)

Match Sprint Cycling silver (1988).

Luding-Rothenburger is the only athlete to ever win medals in both Winter and Summer Games in the same year.

Posted by Sungill | Report as abusive

Carl Lewis is probably the greatest Olympian to date. Will his phenomenal achievements in various items, as well as his 4 consecutive golds in long jump be beaten soon? I doubt. You have my vote Carl.


What an inane article. Like reading a weather forecast written by a psychiatrist. And you get paid for this?

Posted by Harry | Report as abusive

Not only is Phelps the greatest Olympian of all time, he is also one of the greatest athletes the world has ever witnessed – right there with the likes of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong, Jim Thorpe and Tiger Woods.

To think that at the end of these Olympics he could have 16 medals, 14 of which are gold, and 8 golds in one Olympics. Now imagine him doing it again in ’12. It’s unreal. Incredible.

Posted by Olympics08 | Report as abusive

Rowing may not be popular in the US but it is a very popular olympic sport worldwide. Most Americans have the myopic view that sports that Americans are not good at, or do not make it to NBC primetime, should be distained.

Rowing for 7 minutes in at the Olympic distance is the equivalent of playing 2 back to back NBA Finals. The racing shells sheild the TV viewer from seeing how hard their full bodies are working, and the athletes make it look easy. They go into severe oxygen debt and have to do it 4 times in 6 days to win just one medal. It is not unheard of to black out at the finishline, or even before.

If anyone bothered to review the rosters of the team members, many came from public schools, some used rowing in high school to springboard themselves into ivy league schools. How is that a bad thing? Isn’t sports supposed to better life’s opportunities?

If the idea of a “popular” sport means it is deserving of Olympic credibility, then NASCAR would be the biggest Olympic sport of all, closely followed by World Wide Wrestling, with Hulk Hogan as the “greatest olympian”.

I think it’s best to think of each sport as having a “greatest Olympian”. In that context, yes, Michael Phelps is at the top. But a marathoner could also be the greatest Olympian, and that sport (and other middle and long distance sports – including rowing, cycling, running, etc) are worthy Olympic sports. They just completely drain the athletes’ bodies, you can’t run 8 marathons in one games to match Phelps.

If basketball also had a 3 point contest, dunking contest, half court shot contest, etc, then they could earn more medals.

There are a variety of Olympic sports for many reasons – one is so that people with a variety of physical gifts can succeed. Michael Phelps is a great swimmer and he has used his talents to win medals. He might not make a great 100m distance runner.

NBC is pushing “the greatest ever” thing because it boosts TV ratings. It’s all about the benjamins.

Posted by Jana | Report as abusive

How easy it is for outsiders to make conflicting judgment calls, especially when they are not the athletic competing. Michael Phelps has accomplished what no other Olympian ever has. Right or wrong, until another Olympian takes home the Gold Phelps has, he is the greatest. The best of the best is not only taking a gold medal, add breaking several world records. Jump into a pool sometime and have yourself timed. He deserves the title.

Posted by Donna | Report as abusive

To all the rowers out there I don’t think most of the posters think your sport is easy or less than swimming or track.

All of the backlash comes from picking Redgrave whose only accomplishment was winning one EVENT. DID NOT EVEN DO SINGLES or any other type of class!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Edwin Mosess won his ONE EVENT for 4 olympics and didn’t lose for 10 years or so; however NO-ONE is ever going to say he was the GREATEST track athlete.

As most of the rowers know better then I do there are many different classes in that sport also to take part in during the Olympics.



Posted by Pat | Report as abusive

I think a weather forecast written by a psychiatrist might be quite fun, actually…

Posted by Kevin Fylan | Report as abusive


Redgrave won in three different boat classes. Coxed four, straight four and straight pair. Also medalled in 1988 with Andy Holmes in the coxed pair.

Do get your facts straight. Look, rowing is the hardest sport I’ve ever been involved in. It may not require an incredible amount of co-ordination – no more than swimming or running – but for mine, it knocks swimming, athletics, cycling and every other sport I’ve raced in sideways for sheer pain.

Anyways – comparing athletes across sports is pretty bloody meaningless. Phelps is the best swimmer since Spitz, perhaps ever. Would he be able to achieve in another sport? Who knows? Who cares?

Put Moses into a pool – he’d sink. Put Phelps on a basketball court, he’d be terrible.

Just live with the fact that there are peerless athletes in all sports. For those sports.

Posted by Alister | Report as abusive

I cannot believe Reuters is allowing a writer with zero knowledge of competitive swimming to publish a piece of laughable nonsense such as this. Your ignorance and lame logic astound me.

The fundamental flaw in your argument is that you provided reasons (in 2 sentences) why Redgrave is an exceptional athlete, but they did not explain why he should the GREATEST Olympian ever, one who is supposed to be head and shoulder above all other great Olympians/gold medalists. You should at least break down and compare the achievements of Phelps (because you put his name in your title) and Redgrave, and show that Redgrave no question exceeds that of Phelps, in order to have a somewhat legitimate argument here (which of course I doubt you can do judging by the scarcity of your knowledge in swimming)

With all due respect to Redgrave, many athletes had comparable achievements to him, and had overcome illnesses, injuries, age, and financial problems. That kind of stories is indeed exceptional, but not unique.

Your best reasoning is that because swimming has more medals to offer, therefore Phelps has it easy? Could there be a weaker argument? Just because he can fit in multiple swimming events in his schedule, does not make it EASIER for him to win a gold medal in those events. In each of his events gold is just as hard to win as any Gold medal in other sports.

He often has to beat his competitors, who are fully rested, when he just had a semi-final of another event an hour ago. He is never 100%, but he swims against competitors who are 100%. And he always wins, with world record times. Just think what he can do if he was to concentrates on one event like many other Olympians do. He can probably make his 200 breaststroke time qualify for 200 free final.

It is like asking a track athlete to do 1500m, do 4×100 the next day, then 400m the next day, then do 400 hurdles the next day, come back in an hour to do 4×400, all of which he must win gold medals in world record times, And don’t forget all the qualifications in between.

Posted by Naomi | Report as abusive

Allister since you obviously can’t tell the difference between a World Championship METAL and an Olympic one I will spell it out for you straight out of the RECORD BOOKS.

2000 Gold Coxless Four 1996 Gold Coxless Pair
1992 Gold Coxless Pair 1988 Gold Coxless Pair
1988 Bronze Coxed Pair 1984 Gold Coxed Four

The article states he won five straight Gold metals; which would imply in the same event. I took it that way as did most of the others in their replys.

Since you called me out and I indicated having very little knowledge of rowing by my statement. I find the original premise of this article even more laughable.




Posted by Pat | Report as abusive

You seem to gloss over the argument that swimming Phelps’ events is akin to winning the 100, 200, 400, both hurdles, and the relays in track, saying that no one is able to do all of those things because of the differing nature of track. Why is it not possible that no one can do all of them because no one is even close to a match for Phelps? You don’t see any other swimmers competing in even close to the number of events in which he competes. While many swimmers are capable of competing in different distances if they trained for that specific event, almost all other swimmers have a one event distance range (200 to 400, or 100 to 200) while Phelps can go up and down the distances of every stroke. If the schedule wasn’t so absurd, he could get medals in at least four more events (100 free, 400 free, 100 back, 200 back). On top of that, every person he races gets to tee off on that one specific event, while he has to keep himself even over the course of eight days, with perfect performances every session. Not only that, but he is destroying the competition by margins that are almost unheard of in this day and age. If you do some research on him, you can also see that his lactate tests show levels that only Lance Armstrong can even come close to, if you want a more objective measure of his athletic aptitude. The argument shouldn’t even be about whether he is the best olympian of all time, but the best athlete in the history of all sports. While you can compare some athletes like Tiger Woods to him, there is absolutely no way that you could come to a conclusion that someone is actually better than he is.

Posted by Christian | Report as abusive

I have to vote for Jim Thorpe, pentathlon and decathlon gold medalist at the 1912 Olympics. To be the greatest Olympian should be measured on versatility and winning 15 different events makes him the greatest all around Olympian.

Posted by john | Report as abusive

Being honest, I have no recollection of Jim Thorpe myself but I’ve been back leafing through the record books and it does sound a great achievement. I’d agree that versatility should count for a lot.

Posted by Kevin Fylan | Report as abusive

Hey, the LA Times is jumping on the bandwagon — and even THEY rank Redgrave higher than Phelps… reatest15-2008aug15,0,6214465.story

Posted by Even more confused | Report as abusive

As you suggest Mitch to determine the best ever olympian one must consider the sportsmanship. In which case it must go to Eric Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea who had never before seen a 50m pool until competing in the 100m swimming at Sydney 2000. Can’t believe he hasn’t got a mention.

Posted by lulabop | Report as abusive

Bit late in joining this,ed moses gotta be worth a mention,unbeaten in a million races over 10yrs


Better late than never. Moses is a good call. And how about Usain Bolt…? (only joking)

Posted by Kevin Fylan | Report as abusive

Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia will have a huge claim among the greatest Olympians.

First winning the Marathon in 1960 running barefoot and then repeating the feat four years later in Japan just after having a surgery to remove appendicitis but this time with shoes!

Posted by seid | Report as abusive

Michel Phelps is the Worlds Greatest hands down!

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

michael phelps is a good swimmer i watched him swim in all his races he deserves to be the #1 olympian he put everything he had to win those medals and if u think he should get nothing your wrong he deserves are honor.

good bless usa and michael phelps

Posted by Nate | Report as abusive

Eric Heiden’s performance in 1980 is tough to beat. Didn’t he set world records in each of his events?

Posted by Bruce | Report as abusive

Derek Redmond.

Posted by jesse mcdade | Report as abusive

Or maybe Edwin Moses. 2 gold medals and a 122 race winning streak isn’t bad.

Posted by jesse mcdade | Report as abusive

If we’re talking greatest overall olympian, then no discussion can be complete without mention of Clara Hughes. Two Bronze medals in cycling at the 96 summer games and one Gold, one Silver and two Bronze medals in speed skating over three summer olympics after returning to speed skating at the age of 28. The only person to have won multiple medals in both summer and winter olympics. And she’ll be back on the bike at the games in London.

Posted by kb84 | Report as abusive

michael phelps might be the greatest olympic swimmer ever but greatest olympian would have to be jim thorpe. really no argument there.

Posted by busterbluesun | Report as abusive

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