The Strategic Retreat

Michael Phelps Is Not The Greatest Olympian Ever

Michael Phelps by Marcopako cc license

Michael Phelps is not the greatest Olympian ever. Despite what The Guardian or Sports Illustrated brashly declared before the 2012 Olympics even ended he is very far from being “the greatest”. Unlike SI.com I don’t have the misguided hubris to state my opinion is “beyond debate”. Nothing is beyond debate so I will present to you 7 points as to why Michael Phelps isn’t the greatest Olympian.

1. Swimming is not a real sport.

That’s the crux of it all right there. Swimming is athletic, it is challenging, it’s even sporting in a way but it’s not a ‘real’ sport. Sports involve competition, not comparison. Real competition involves your actions being directly affected by the actions of your opponents. Comparing times is not real competition. This isn’t a flaw unique to swimming but it does put swimming in a lower tier than any true sport. This is like being the captain of your JV team and declaring yourself better than the varsity athletes. If you don’t actually engage in a tier 1 sporting event, you can’t be the greatest, even if you’re the best at what you do.

2. He only has medals in one sport.

Michael Phelps is a great swimmer, probably the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time. That doesn’t change the fact he’s a one trick pony. If you have a medal in running and jumping you’re automatically a better Olympian than Michael Phelps, even if you only have 2 medals.

3. Actual sports have one event per Olympics.

Best boxer in the world? You get one medal. Best swimmer, you get a dozen. That doesn’t make you better it makes the Olympics worse. The Olympics being flawed and giving 1/10th of their medals out for swimming doesn’t mean those medals are of the same value as other sports. They are not. Any decathlete is a better Olympian. They do multiple events yet can only get one medal. They are like a reverse Michael Phelps.

4. He’s only won medals in 3 Olympics.

Winning a gold medal in 4 Olympics or more makes you better than somebody who won medals in 3.

5. Medals from relay teams don’t count toward individual greatness.

They count for the country and coach but it’s not what you did so much as being lucky enough to be on a team with other talented people. Being part of a winning team doesn’t mean that you are individually great. He didn’t even compete in the finals of one of his relay golds.

6. He was the top swimmer at only 2 Olympics.

If you were the best at a sport in 3 Olympics, you’re better. Since the medal count is totally skewed by the Olympics wanting to marry swimming we should look at who was the best at a sport for how many Olympics. Phelps has 2. Other Olympians have more.

7. He’s a douchebag.

To me ‘greatness’ is more than being a good athlete. Being “great” at something often requires qualities beyond what the sport itself requires. By many accounts Michael Phelps is a complete douche. I don’t know the man so maybe he’s not. Just because a lot of people -including some of his fellow Olympians- express a certain opinion doesn’t make that opinion fact. What is a fact though is Michael Phelps has a DUI. That, alone, makes him a douche. That alone tarnishes any “greatness” he may have.

Olympians greater than Michael Phelps:

Anyone with a medal in two, actually distinct, events.
Anyone with a medal in four or more Olympics
Anyone who was the best at their event in 3 or more Olympics
Any Olympian without a DUI
Anyone with a medal in an actual sport

In general, swimming has been given an unfair amount of medals. An insignificant privileged “practice” of real sports is given a 10x valuation for strange, arbitrary and political reasons. We don’t have a potato sack race or a hopping race in track. Styles of swimming don’t deserve their own medals just as “walking fancy” shouldn’t have a separate medal from regular walking.

When the singular event you compete in is less of a sport than StarCraft 2 you cannot be considered the greatest Olympic athlete, no matter how good you are at it.

Just missed: Genetic mutation, Olympic boycotts, racism, speed suits and it’s Jim Thorpe.

About Jeff

Jeff was born in the back of a War Game Store on the day the first Star Trek movie came out, to a computer programmer mother and a father who wrote the story for Dragon's Lair. Jeff has an MBA, a CSM, and a penchant for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.