Michael Phelps: Best Olympian ever?

Columnist Ray McNulty makes his case

On some topics, there can be no debate.

This is one of them.

Michael Phelps isn't merely the most dominant swimmer the world has seen. He's not just the most decorated athlete in Olympic history. He has moved well beyond being America's greatest Olympian.

He's the greatest Olympian ever.

Four Olympics.

Nineteen medals.

Fifteen of them gold.

Let those numbers sink in for a moment, then consider what they mean: Not only has Phelps won more medals than anyone else, but he also has won more GOLD medals than everyone else.

Four years ago, he became the unrivaled star of the Beijing Olympics -- surpassing Mark Spitz's seven gold medals in 1972 -- by emerging triumphant in all eight races in which he competed.

He is, by any measure, the Olympic champion of champions.

And, really, the numbers alone should end any argument to the contrary, especially when you consider only one past Olympian comes close -- former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won 18 medals, including nine gold medals, across three Summer Games from 1956 to 1964, from Melbourne to Rome to Tokyo.

Thing is, Phelps isn't done.

Though he has said publicly the London Games will be his last, he still has three events on his schedule, which gives him a golden opportunity to put the medal record so far out of reach that it likely will be many generations before it is challenged.

"It's been an amazing career," Phelps told reporters Tuesday after swimming the anchor leg of the U.S. team's victory in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, "but we still have a couple of races to go."

Even if he doesn't get back to the podium -- and I wouldn't bet against him, now that the pressure of breaking the all-time medal record is gone -- he already has done enough to settle the matter.

And, please, let's not hear any ridiculous, all-he-does-is-swim baloney, served up by those who want to make a case for the track-and-field champions of yesteryear, such as the legendary Jesse Owens and, specifically, Carl Lewis.

Lewis was a wonderfully gifted and highly successful Olympian, having won 10 medals, nine gold and one silver, as a sprinter and long-jumper from 1984 to 1996. Had it not been for Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, he might've won more.

Probably would've won more.

But not nine more.

The most medals Lewis brought home from any Olympics were the four golds he won in 1984 -- he finished first in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4x100-meter relay races, as well as in the long jump -- at the Los Angeles Games that were boycotted by most Soviet bloc nations.

As for comparing swimmers with track athletes, think about it: What's more difficult to do? Run? Or swim? Truth is, whether you're on the track or in the pool, competing on a world-class level is extraordinary. Both require God-given gifts, years of commitment and hard work, and constantly perfecting techniques. But the specific demands of each sport are different.

If anything, the psychological demands of swimming might be greater, given the day-after-day drudgery of jumping into a pool and spending countless hours staring at a black line at the bottom.

Sprinters, at least, get to spend their days in the fresh air and sunshine.

And just to be sure: Phelps has needed to be versatile, too, competing in freestyle, butterfly, individual medley and relay races at varying distances.

Was Lewis a better overall athlete? Perhaps, but how do we make such a comparison? Was Phelps a better Olympian? There, a fair comparison can be made, and the answer is: without a doubt.

So those who want to put an asterisk alongside Phelps' medal record, simply because he's a swimmer, are ignoring not only the numbers but also the sustained excellence necessary to accumulate them.

Not only did Phelps produce the greatest Olympic performance ever in Beijing, but he also put together the greatest Olympic career ever, collecting medals in Athens and Beijing and, now, London.

The fact that he hasn't been nearly as successful here only makes his accomplishment greater -- because it shows how difficult it is to win Olympic medals.

Phelps has 19 medals.

Fifteen of them gold.

And he's not done.

End of argument.

Ray McNulty, columnist for the Treasure Coast newspapers, is part of the Scripps team covering the London Olympics. Contact him at ray.mcnulty@scripps.com

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