Changing China

Giant on the move

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


I take your point on Michael Phelps but I can’t agree on Steve Redgrave. It was a great achievement but the greatest? That’s really stretching it.
How about Jesse Owens?

Posted by Kevin Fylan | Report as abusive

Redgrave’s feat, impressive as it was, was one of longevity and his lack of versatility would rule him out for me. There are lots of golds in gymnastics, but they have to show a different skill to get each one. The fact that they are judged, though, makes them non-starters. How about Jim Thorpe, pentathlon and decathlon gold medallist at the 1912 Olympics? That he later went on to play American football, baseball and basketball professionally is not relevent to this debate, but does illustrate his supreme athleticism.

Posted by Nick | Report as abusive

ROWING? You have to be kidding, right?

Sure, what he did was impressive – a great, great achievement – but he is the king of a very small castle. How many people in the world row? It is not exactly high-participation is it?

Running, swimming… they are what the Olympics is all about.

You could drop rowing from the Games tomorrow and no-one would notice.

Carl Lewis is the man.

Posted by Tom Waits | Report as abusive

You’ve covered the options there Mitch and I reckon it has to be Birgit Fischer.

Canoe doesn’t have the profile to make her into a megastar but her record is astonishing.

Posted by Simon | Report as abusive

First rowing. Then canoe. YOU GUYS ARE ON A DIFFERENT PLANET.

Posted by Tom Waits | Report as abusive

I think we are forgetting the great Jim Thorpe who won gold for the Pentathelon and the decathelon at the 1912 games. He also placed 4th in the high jump and 7th in the long jump. A very versatile athelete who even in 1912 could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat, the 220 in 21.8 seconds, the 440 in 51.8 seconds, the 880 in 1:57, the mile in 4:35, the 120-yard high hurdles in 15 seconds, and the 220-yard low hurdles in 24 seconds. he could also pole vault 11 feet, put the shot 47 ft 9 in, throw the javelin 163 feet, and throw the discus 136 feet


I’ll have to disagree purely on the point that Redgrave did not compete as a solo athlete and for me that rules him out.
I think it would have to go to a multidisciplinarian & attitude is a key element too, hence Phelps would defiantly be ruled out.

Posted by Mr M | Report as abusive

Ineligible for the very same reasons espoused – rowing is not running or swimming. Also unacceptable is the argument that multiple swimming golds are ubiquitous. I also fail to see why swimming and winning multiple distances and disciplines is any less strenuous than participating and winning just one. I can understand it is too early to say Phelps is the greatest but naysayers must realize he is just 23. It is incredible that he has pervaded our collective consciousness so much that we have labelled him a ‘common talent’ and hence unworthy even before he is even remotely ‘done’. I believe Phelps lays claim to being the greatest as much as Carl Lewis or Jesse Owens.

Posted by Hunter Green | Report as abusive

David, that’s a good point about Jim Thorpe. You sent me leafing back through the record book and he does sound like an impressive guy.
Still not sure if he’d be the greatest…
And if Phelps comes back in four years time and wins a few more golds he’ll have a much better argument.

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Let’s not forget Eric Heiden who won ALL of the men’s speed skaing races in 1980, the equivalent of a runner winning the 100, the 400, the mile, the 5,000 and the 10K

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive


Posted by Steven Davis | Report as abusive

I can agree with the selection of Redgrave. While Phelps is the most dominant of two Olympics (so far) the fact Redgrave won gold over 5 Olympics shows a complete domination of an era – 20 years – in which the competition has changed and rejuvinated, and still couldn’t beat him. If Phelps can last a couple more games, then maybe we need to rethink things, but for now Redgrave has the dominance.

Posted by Jimmy | Report as abusive

Are you serious? You are taking a ROWER as your best olympian of all time??!! He had teammates, and simply rowed with an oar, absolutely no athletic ability involved.. This has to be the worst bit of publishing I have read in a long time. Mitch Phillips, you used 3 sentences to support your choice, and one of them was about how gravious this rower was in victory. Many atheletes exemplify the Olympic spirit, how about Phelps shaking hands with the trash-talking French the other night?
When did Reuters lower their standards? You’re terrible!

Posted by Aaron | Report as abusive

“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.”

Says the person who has never swam in a competitive race.

Your rationale is laughable, and the fact that you put forth is true not because swimming is easier (which your post certainly implies), but because swimmers are much better conditioned than track athletes.

Go look at calories burned for swimming vs. running to get an idea which is “harder.” Penalizing the swimmers (as the media seems to be doing) because they make it look easy does not mean that it is in fact easy.

Posted by Rob Calico | Report as abusive

This is the worst article ever written. What Phelps has done will never be matched again. A rower? That is a jokefest compared to Phelps, not only winning, but dominating the field setting and setting world records.

Posted by Mick Moody | Report as abusive

It’s always fun to debate the “greatest of all-time”, but Michael Phelps is about to stack the weight of achievement heavily in his favor. If he ends up with 14 golds at the close of the Beijing Games, he will have more golds than anyone. If he competes again in 2012, there will be little left to debate.

Your comments grossly understate the difficulty of what Phelps has, and continues, to achieve. He’s earned world records in three of swimming’s four distinctly different strokes. This is immensely difficult to accomplish, as each stroke is completely unique, and it takes most elite swimmers a lifetime of training to excel in even one. Add to your consideration the ridiculously physical demands of his program. Whereas many of his competitors can focus and rest for a single race, Phelps may have less than an hour to recover before facing the world’s toughest competition in a completely different stroke.

While people will always debate who was the best, Pheplps will soon build the strongest argument of all the candidates.

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

Dara Torres. even if she doesnt win the 50M this year, what she has done as truly changed the world view of age.

she isnt swimming a long distance event that requires endurance. she is swimming the “worlds fastest women swimmer” race. this will be her fourth (i believe) olympics, and she skipped two others.


but probably my first vote goes to phelps if he wins 8. if you havent swum competitively, then you have no idea how hard it is to swim so many events, which include ALL the prelims.

Posted by curtis | Report as abusive

Romanian canoer Ivan Patzaichin had 7 Olympic medals,4 Gold and 3 Silver at 500 and 1000 c1 and c2 between 1968-Mexico and 1984-LA and 8 World Championship Gold medals betwenn 1973-1982,at c1/2 500-10000 m.

Posted by nicolae | Report as abusive

Any athlete testing positive for banned substances should automatically be removed from any discussion of the greatest athlete. Carl Lewis, inarguably, should be removed from the list, and if there was any real justice would also have his medals stripped.

Posted by Andrew Yang | Report as abusive

Your kidding right? You offer up a participant in a team sport? and one in a sport that the majority of the world could care less about? Phelps made a Olympic final at 15. Broke a world record at 16. But he isn’t done yet. Maybe he doesn’t get 8 golds here. Maybe he does. Maybe he comes back in 4 years and gets 5 more? Too early to call him the best ever, but I believe when he is done there will be no doubt left.


It is true that swimmers can swim the 50 to the 200. If you were a swimmer you would realized that while completing all three races is possible, one person is usually not capable of enjoying the same success in all distances. If anything that should be more of a testament to Phelps dominance and not detract from it. Runners as a whole are flashy and gaudy. They are not blue collar athletes like Phelps and other swimmers. Remember Maurice Green and Michael Johnson at trials a few Olympics ago? Both were too self absorded and had to BOTH “suffer” a hamstring injury in the 200 finals because they were afraid to lose to one another and have to remove themselves from the God like pedestle one which they placed themselves. The same, if not more, exertion is given in both sports. Phelps is the best end of story. Running may have a few less events than swimming, but it has enough where some athletes could attempt to stop being pathetic and try to match the athletic talent which Phelps showcases in every race.

Posted by swimmer2005 | Report as abusive

It may be too early to crown Phelps as the greatest Olympian of all time, however, this piece is filled with contorted logic and incongruous comparisons, no doubt fueled by an overt anti-American angst. Can you honestly discount the difficulty of succeeding at the highest level over a number of distances and disciplines in the swimming competition?

Please also consider whether the same anti-American bias is driving the editorial decision behind how Reuters is ranking the “medal count” (i.e., solely in order of number of gold, rather than overall, medals). I readily concede that China’s 13 gold medals is a greater accomplishment than the United States’ 7 (despite the 20 – 22, respectively, aggregate medal count), but think of what you are doing to poor France! Their 9 total medals apparently ranks behind the 1 medal each of India and Thailand, the 2 medals each of Spain, Romania, Finland, and Slovakia, and the 4, 3, and 7, respectively, of Netherlands, Azerbaijan, and North Korea…simply because each of those countries has a SINGLE gold medal (to France’s zero).

Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

He may not be at the top, but you forgot to mention Eric Heiden who won all the medals available in his sport, no mean feat by any standard

Posted by Stu Klemm | Report as abusive

Jim Thorpe it is, if you’re talking about the best olympic athlete

Posted by mike | Report as abusive

While it may be true that the number of similar events available in swimming removes a small amount of aura from the fact that Phelps will win more golds in his olympic career than any other person, it does not in any way prove that he is not the greatest olympian. Just condsider the evens of last night (which are very likely to repeat themselves several times over during these olympics): the man swims the gold medal race for the 200m freestyle and shatters the world record (which was held by him no less) in the process. A mere 50 min later, he casually wins his heat in the 200m butterfly and in the process beats current olympic record.

Posted by Matt | Report as abusive

I don’t really agree with Redgrave being the best, but the point is well made. Phelps would and should be in Top five along with Carl Lewis and Mark Spitz.

Posted by jackson | Report as abusive

Is it too late to vote for Eric the Eel?

Posted by Jim | Report as abusive

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.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

I agree with several previous posters that this article discounts the extreme difficulty of being number 1 in a variety of swimming events (distances and strokes). Most swimmers have one event in which they even have a chance to be #1. Swimmers who are the best at the Individual Medley (IM)(like Phelps and Tom Dolan before him) certainly have extraordinary abilities, but even then it is not a given that they will dominate other single stroke events, for example Tom Dolan held the 400IM world record but neve won olympic medals in non-IM events. Regardless, I think the debate over who was/is the greatest olympian ever is one that will and should continue forever–there are millions of potentially great olympians in training around the world!

Posted by Kate | Report as abusive

Wow! Rowers and conoers? Are you kidding me? I guess Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would make your “Top Athletes ” list.

Jim Thorpe!

Posted by sbradley | Report as abusive

Eric Heiden. Jim Thorpe. Bob Mathias. Daley Thompson. Jesse Owens. Carl Lewis (I must have missed when he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs). Bonnie Blair. In that order.

Posted by tina | Report as abusive

did you really write an entire article on the greatest olympian and not mention jesse owens?

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

If you are going to go with the Anglo centric view you should of stuck with Daley Thompson. He was absolutely dominant in an event that requires ever aspect of athletic talent.

I think you should of also included Edwin Moses, he won the 400m high hurdles in dominant fashion in 1976 and 1984 and would of won again in 1980 but for the US boycott. His string of 122 consecutive victories over 9 years, 9 months and 9 days also can not be ignored.

Posted by Brian | Report as abusive

‘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.’
Name one other swimmer who is taking part in all of Phelps’ races. He is certainly one of the greatest.
Rowing??? As for ‘ His graciousness in victory ‘ what has he done above all the others (with perhaps the exception of Thompson) to earn that?

Posted by Gayatri Ramanujam | Report as abusive

Phelps is quite wonderful, but my vote goes to Jim Thorpe.

Posted by Jonelle | Report as abusive

If we are going to “track” Medals and list them in order, I propose that a gold medal be given a value of 3 points, a silver 2 points, and a bronze 1 point. That way, China is still in the lead, with 49 points to U.S.’s 42 points, but Italy overtakes Germany for fourth place with 19 points to Germany’s 15 points. France would definitely move ahead of the countries that have one gold to their name.

Posted by Steve | Report as abusive

So by the logic of most of the people in this discussion Phelps\’ medals in relay events should not be counted. I mean if Redgrave cannot even be considered because he participates in a sport with 1-3 others then why should Phelps get the credit for his medals in relays. Not to mention Redgrave bowed in most or all of those boats he won in. For those of you unfamiliar with the sport that means he also steered (rowers face the opposite direction of where they are headed) while earning five olympic medals. Most of you also attack other sports with the same arguments you defend others from. And Dave you are right just because a sport is less popular that makes those participants worse athletes. What a ridiculously ignorant argument.

Posted by Samuel Ellis | Report as abusive

Anti-American bias, definitely; and what about class bias? Rowing is one of the most elitest sports in the world; compared to an event like running – or even swimming – the pool of competition (no pun intended) is really, truly small indeed.

Leave it to a Brit to call a rower the greatest Olympian ever. Really.


The entire premise of the author’s editorial is stupid because it pretends to weight medals in sports based on a perceived disparity in difficulty. Last time I checked, there is no agreed hierarchy of sports difficulty. They’re all tough in some respect or another, and talent in any particular sport is not necessarily fungible. How do you make a comparison? For example, who was the better athlete, Wayne Gretsky or Joe Lewis? The only particular metrics you can use are number of championship wins, overall win record, and logevity in career. If scarcity of medals is an issue why don’t we look at tournament competitions for greatest olympians? How about the hockey teams and the basketball teams for our great olympians? Those events only offer one medal per gender a year.

So, I totally discount blowing off overall medal counts. That said, at least three Soviet gymnasts have a claim in this, the aforementioned Larissa Latynina, and also Boris Shakhlin and Nikolai Andrianov. All have achieved more than Phelps, but should Phelps top them, how on earth do we compare five gold medals and a bronze for ROWING to 10 or more gold for major swimming relays?

Posted by Jon | Report as abusive

I add my vote for Jim Thorpe, and as a “write in” candidate he seems to be winning the most votes. . .

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

Cassius Clay was the greatest olympian of all time. Ask him yourself, and he will tell you.

Posted by giantpeon | Report as abusive

What kind of writer leaves out the sport of his “champion” in an article about sports?

Someone who is driving traffic to the champion’s website.

So what is the real purpose of this article?

And why mention “illness and financial hardship”?

Poorly positioned argument for a selection that nobody agrees with.

Those athletes who can do many things are amazing. That’s why the decathlon is the measure upon which all others can be weighed.

And if want to mix hardship into the equation, Jim Thorpe was an American Indian half-breed also played pro basketball, football and baseball.

Redgrave? Who’s even heard of him outside GB? Wouldn’t that also be a way to measure greatness.


Rowing? How can the best olympian be from a team sport? If that’s the case, then Michael Jordan is the best Olympian ever. The 1992 Dream Team was the most dominant in any Olympic event and Jordan was the best player and global icon.

Posted by rypay | Report as abusive

Best Olympian ever: if you were to combine Michael Phelps with Jim Thorpe, Jessie Owens, Carl Lewis, Mark Sptiz, the Dream Team, and the 1980 Miracle On Ice team you would get the ultimate Olympic god. Also, that god would compete for America. Because we are the best. Ha, a rower! Preposterous.

Posted by Hunter | Report as abusive

I’m going to agree…Redgrave competed through serious illness and achieved a lot over 20+ years.

Posted by Educated spectator | Report as abusive

This is absolutely ridiculous. I feel that this article was written more out of spite to those who consider Michael Phelps to be the greatest Olympian of all time than it was a sound journalistic piece written with integrity and care that what was written would not appear ill-informed or utterly useless. You start out by saying that Phelps has a spot in the Pantheon should he win 14 golds. Really? Six golds in one Olympics doesn’t qualify him for a spot? How about 9 (and counting) in three, with none in the first? Not only that, but Phelps has been competing in Olympics since he was FIFTEEN years old. I know that isn’t entirely uncommon for gymnasts, but he will be an Olympic icon by the time he’s 31, if he is to try to swim in 2016, and he is already an icon for the development of younger and younger athletes. Not to mention, Phelps is swimming for two golds in one night tonight. Most of the time he is racing qualifiers for different events on the same day, and raced the 4×100 relay leg in record time, though he was only an hour and a half or so removed from the prelims of the 200. Michael Phelps isn’t just dominating, he’s become the embodiment of the term “domination” while running around more than Carl Lewis or Jesse Owens probably did in their games. And to select a rower, of all things? Longevity does not make you a great Olympian so much as accomplishment, especially when competitions such as those in track and field, swimming, and gymnastics require the utmost in physical condition, generally reserved for those below the age of 30. In gymnastics, most competitors are simply unable to continue to keep up with that high a level of competition by their mid- to late-20s, and swimming is much the same. Considering the fact that track and field, swimming, and gymnastics are the face of the summer olympics and the ones in which most countries have opportunities for victory, considering a rower as the greatest Olympian ever is utterly ridiculous. How many African nations have great rowing teams, or, for that matter, great individual rowers? Honestly, that is an open-ended question, as I wouldn’t know because it is not a popular sport. That is not to say that one cannot be great in an unpopular sport, but as with the situation of soccer in America, the fact that rowing is not a spotlighted Olympic sport may keep many of the athletes who would truly be great at it from participating, and therefore you do not see the level of competition or athleticism as that which Phelps or his fellow Olympians in more popular sports see. Another fact (one of the many) missed in this article is that along with that medley (pardon the pun) of events in swimming comes individual specialists. Consider the fact that while your rowing candidate competed against and with others trained for their one event, Phelps has trained and competed in several different events against people who, on the other hand, spend all their time preparing for one or a few. Not only that, but there are four basic strokes in swimming, one of which (the breaststroke) is entirely different from and does not use the same muscles or form as the others. It is virtually unheard of for an elite swimmer of the other three to be highly proficient in the others, let alone the best in the world at it, as is Phelps. Even if there were to be the various running events you mentioned in order to make track like swimming, with the obvious exception of running backwards, no running events employ particularly different styles. Sure, runners may take different strides for different distances or pace themselves differently, and hurdles create a different specialty, but there is not the variation of both distance and specialty in running or any other event (with the obvious exception of gymnastics) that is seen in swimming. This is not to say that one could not compete in any other event than swimming or gymnastics and be considered the best ever, but domination of either of those two would seem to put the athlete who accomplished it head and shoulders above the rest. I am only 20 years old, and therefore know little about much older Olympians, but other than dominant gymnastic TEAMS (the Russian juggernaut comes to mind) there are no performances as dominant as Phelps’ is and has been. Taking into light the variation of skills and distances, opponents’ skill, and grueling schedule he has had to withstand, his ability to win 9 gold medals between two Olympic games is remarkable, and if he were to win 14, it would be difficult for anyone to ever overtake his place atop the Pantheon.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

While attempting to minimize Phelps’ achievements, please keep his grueling schedule in mind. It’s not uncommon for him to race a semi-final event against some of the fastest swimmers in the world, wait less than an hour, then set a world record in a final against swimmers that will only appear in that one race. Think he’s already done this twice, not to mention the two finals he’s racing tonight. This is a true demonstration of endurance and dominance that likely has not been equaled.

Posted by Jon | Report as abusive

As a rower, I appreciate your selection of Steve Redgrave. As for the haters, whatever. Many will never understand this sport and what it embodies in terms of the physical demands. Rowers have among the highest lactate levels ever recorded in humans after a 2000m race. Nuff said.
I don’t agree that Redgrave is the greatest. The point has been made, and I agree, that every single one of his golds came with others (Matthew Pinsent in particular stands out) in the boat. Had he achieved this as a single sculler then I might agree.
Jim Thorpe should be tops:
- overcame adversity? check
- talented in many disciplines? check
- won many medals? check
- bonus points for being Native American

Posted by J-Dub | Report as abusive

“..simply rowed with an oar, absolutely no athletic ability involved.”

“You could drop rowing from the Games tomorrow and no-one would notice.”

As a rower it is obvious that neither of these individuals is actually watching the sport at the games… cause if you were, you would realise that it takes a H E L L of a lot of physical and psychological stamina… and that the stands are actually JUST as packed as in the swimming.. I have no real opinion on Redgrave being the greatest Olympian, but I do take personal offense to people who think we just ‘pull on an oar’ and that the sport is so insignificant that it could be dropped. Sure it’s on a smaller scale, but NO LESS important.

Posted by Jennie | Report as abusive

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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