We can do this the easy way. Or we can do this the hard way.
The easy way is Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all-time. And it’s not really that close.
22 medals. Soviet gymnist Larisa Latynina is second with 18. Third place has 12.
18 gold medals. No other athlete has more than 9.
11 of those gold medals were in individual events. Ray Ewry won 8 individual golds between 1900-1908.
He won 8 of those golds in 2008 games. Mark Spitz won 7 in the 1972 games. Oh, and Phelps also won 6 golds in the 2004 games.
He set 39 world records (29 individual) in swimming, the most ever. 8 of the records he set in the Olympics. 7 of those world records were at the 2008 games. He still holds 7 race records today.
The easy way is letting the numbers dictate the outcome.
The hard way would be somehow trying to quantify things like “cultural impact” and how “memorable” the person or the win was. The hard way would be comparing sports and their “value” to the Olympics and the “difficulty” of the events in question. The hard way has more to do with individual taste and things having less to do with the results on the “competition floor” and more to do with the things off it.
Carl Lewis was unbelievable. Certainly one of my sports heroes as a child. He might be considered the pinnacle in track and field. But 22-10 medals (18-9 golds) is what it is. Scoreboard for Phelps.
Jesse Owens won four gold medals in 1936 in Berlin, Germany in the face of Hitler and the Nazis. He is historically significant in many ways, and is honored as such today (the track and field athlete of the year is named the Jesse Owens Award). But he competed in just the one Summer Olympics and doesn’t have am Olympics career or single Olympics Games that would rival Phelps.
Swimmers have compiled numerous medals throughout history, and would be on the short list of greatest Olympians, but none of them can touch Phelps. So there is no real way to argue on their behalf.
You can run down many memories and recollect the greatness of so many, whether it’s gymnastics, athletics, skiing, skating, rowing, or ball sports, and no one person can equal what Michael Phelps has done.
Michael Phelps has lapped the field. To be this good, for this long speaks to both dominance and longevity. That is the double-play combo so few in athletics history achieve.
There are a lot of things that make an athlete great. Determining what makes the greatest athlete is an almost impossible task. But determining the greatest Olympian is much easier. Just count the hardware. That is the goal for all Olympians. Winning medals, especially gold medals. Gold signifies the best. Phelps has twice as many as anyone else ever. He most definitely has earned the tag as the greatest Olympian ever.