The Olympics is in full swing with the first week typically dominated by swimming and gymnastics – two sports that America (my home country) seems to excel at. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time – his medal total alone would be very competitive if he were his own country, and as an individual, it is unprecedented. The Olympics is the pinnacle for many athletes – winning the Gold and being crowned the best in the world is the dream of so many, a dream only realized by a tiny fraction. If the Olympics is the proving ground for athletes, and if Michael Phelps has far more medals than any other Olympic athlete, is it fair to say he is the Greatest Athlete of All Time?
Ummm, no. My gut says it is not even close, but I don’t expect the retort of “because I said so” will convince those who feel otherwise.
The only way to come to any sort of consensus on this question is to define what Greatest Athlete means. Unfortunately, there is no single agreed upon definition of this term and that is the reason this topic is so often debated. There are all sorts of Top 50 and Top 10 lists of best athletes, often with very different names, because each tabulator is using their own system.
If your operational definition of “Greatest Athlete” is the athlete with the most Olympic medals or the one with the most gold medals, then by that standard I can see the argument that Phelps is number one. But to me there are three serious flaws with using that operational definition.
Flaw Number One: The Olympics doesn’t contest every sport. As powerlifters have long lamented, there is no Olympic Powerlifting. Nor is arm wrestling or strongman competitions part of the Olympics. I love powerlifting as much as anybody, but even I won’t claim that the greatest powerlifter or best strongman is the greatest athlete. More mainstream sports such as American football and baseball are not contested in the Olympics either. Using medal count as the sole determinator leaves out a huge number of athletes and unfairly reduces the pool of competition.
Flaw Number Two: Swimming has a disproportionately large number of events for athletes to enter and medal in. The events are quite similar and there is a large overlap in the physical abilities required to do well in the various swimming events. It is not a coincidence that the top six total medal winners for the United States (as of this writing) are all swimmers, and I would guess if someone were to beat Phelps’s record, it will be another swimmer. In swimming you have four different strokes, five different distances plus medley events and relay events. The various combinations of those events are staggering. Almost all swimming events heavily rely on the oxidative (aerobic) energy system because of the length of time they take to complete. As such, athletes who excel at one distance in swimming are much more likely to do very well at other distances. This is why it is much more common for an athlete in swimming to win multiple distances than you would see in track competitions, for example.
Imagine if powerlifting – which consists of the squat, bench press, and deadlift equaling the total score, were in the Olympics. Now imagine that while going for the total, lifters could also win medals in each individual lift. That would allow one lifter to win 4 medals. On top of that, imagine if the Olympics also contested a 3RM (3 rep max), 5RM, 8RM, and 12RM in each lift. In addition there would be a lifting relay in which case four lifters would compete as a team to get the best total – the best squat, the best bench, and the deadlift. Those relay teams would also compete in the 3RM, 5RM, 8RM, and 12RM. While this might be glorious, the bottom line is that the same lifters would be winning most of the medals. If you out lift someone by 30 lbs, your 3RM is almost for sure better than his, as is your 5 RM, etc. Lifters could easily be walking out with 10+ medals in each Olympics. Compete in 3-4 Olympics and suddenly you would have athletes with 30-40 medals in no time. Ultimately, the number of events per sport and the number of medals available is a relatively arbitrary number, and it doesn’t lend itself well to comparing the medal count across various sports.
Even looking at existing sports, each medal cannot be considered evenly weighted. In the decathlon, an athlete competes in 10 different events to win one medal. What if they changed the rules to allow those athletes to medal in each individual event as well the overall? What if there were a decathlon relay? What if the medals available in swimming were just for one form – swim as fast as you can over 50, 100, 200, 400, 800M. Type of stroke doesn’t matter, just pick the one you are the best at and go. Relays are okay, but this would mean there would be no medleys. By my count that would give Phelps 14 total medals, 8 of which are for the relays. Still very impressive, and that was assuming if he won gold in any distance he would win the overall which might not be the case. Two soviet gymnasts have 15 or more total medals to their names, and gymnastics is a much tougher sport.
Third potential flaw: If one is going to attempt to make claims about the greatest athlete, I believe inherent in that assumption is the transfer of skill from one event to another. Of course this is where things get tricky because transfer has to be assumed and is not always specifically measured.
The transfer of skill means if you are good at one thing how does that ability transfer over to another activity? Imagine if one athlete had to compete in another sport, how well would they fare? For example compare Michael Phelps to Michael Jordan (Michael Jordan is an Olympian, too). Of course Phelps would destroy Jordan in the pool and Jordan would destroy Phelps on the basketball court. But what if there were a more neutral sport that could be used as a testing ground? This sounds like a great idea, but once you pick a third sport there will be specific skills and abilities that are required for that sport and people will argue about the third sport chosen until the end of time. Instead it is more useful to look at the physical components that are used in sports.
In general there are 9 different physical components that are key in athletic ability. They are
- Muscular Strength – the maximal resistance that a motor pattern can overcome – typically measured by lifting weights such as the squat, bench, deadlift, or clean and press.
- Muscular Endurance – the ability of the muscle to perform a motor pattern against a resistance repeatedly, typically measured by bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, dips, and pull-ups.
- Cardiovascular Endurance – the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the body. This is called one’s VO2 max which is a score given based on how well you do on cardio based tests. A score of 20 sucks, 40 is fit, 60 is very good, and 80 is world class.
- Flexibility – the range of motion achievable at a joint.
- Body Composition – the amount of muscle and fat the individual is carrying.
- Power – The ability to execute a motor pattern at a high speed against a heavy resistance. Examples of this include Olympic Weight Lifting, maximum vertical jump, and the shot put.
- Speed – The ability to move at maximal velocity i.e. how fast can one go. Typically measured by a sprint such as the 40 yd or 100 M dash.
- Agility – The ability of the body to decelerate, change direction (or have the option to do so), and then accelerate again. This would be tested by agility tests such as the shuttle run or T-test.
- Quickness – The ability of the body to respond to an unexpected stimulus, sometimes thought of as dexterity.
It is important to realize that every sport or athletic ability involves skill as well as fitness. Skill means there is a motor pattern that will be optimal to produce a certain movement and one must practice that specific motor pattern in order to develop a high level of proficiency in that sport. In the first chapter of my book All About Powerlifting, I do my best to define what a sport is (a sport is any physical activity that involves the coordinated activity of the large muscle groups of the body that is contested under specific rules, upon which the performance of the participant can be ranked in comparison to others, and the outcome is unknown at the start of the event) and what an athlete is (anyone who competes in a sport).
Let’s take a lot at how Phelps (in his prime) would stack up against Michael Jordan (in his prime) in these components:
|Aspect of Fitness||Phelps||Jordan|
|Muscular Strength||XXX (particularly lower body)|
—- = athletes are tied, physically abilities are approximately equal
When you look at the above list, it should become clear why some sports are much more skill based rather than fitness based, and therefore the athletes who partake in those sports are often lacking in the ‘athletic’ abilities that other athletes may have. Sports such as golf, swimming, ultra-distance running, NASCAR, shooting, Olympic curling (shuttle board on ice), billiards, and darts do not require the same level of physical athleticism as sports such as American football, rugby, gymnastics, or fighting just to name a few. And this is why something like chess is not a sport at all (because it requires no physical fitness), but is instead a game the same as checkers or scrabble or poker.
To compare athletes, take any two athletes you wish and imagine that these two athletes are to compete in a neutral third sport, and they would go against each other. We have to assume skill level in the sport is the same. One way you might do this is to imagine that another athlete could climb inside their bodies and direct them on what to do. Think of the athlete’s body as a race car and this new person as the ‘driver’ who climbs in to steer the car, which body would you want? Of course it might depend on the sport you choose. Consider these traditional sports as measuring grounds:
While one can’t say for sure which athlete would do better without seeing them perform each sport, I would certainly wager with reasonable confidence that Michael Jordan’s fitness and physical abilities would serve him much better in all of these sports than Michael Phelps’s fitness. One of the big knocks on swimming is that the skills developed in swimming just don’t transfer that well to skills needed for the more traditional land based sports. That is not to say that swimming has little or no value; it can be a fantastic exercise that is easy on the joints, and it is something one can do at almost any age.
If one wishes to take a more primal route when comparing athletes and who is better or more fit on a neutral proving ground, one can look to how animals would compare their fitness – which is to fight. If a bear and a wolf come across a carcass and they both want that resource, they might fight over it. Hence the term survival of the fittest. While a bit barbaric, one option to test fitness would be to have the two athletes fight. I am not suggesting this take place in reality, but you can often do a virtual fight if the difference in fitness is clear. I would argue that the one single physical event or activity that best measure’s a person’s total fitness is their ability to fight. Of course, this immediately vaults the Mixed Martial Artists, UFC Fighters, Boxers and the like to the top of any discussion involving all time great athletes.
A more modern way of assessing fitness might be a fitness duel of sorts. It could work like this: One athlete picks an event; both athletes compete in it (for example Phelps would pick swimming and then of course he would win). Then the second athlete picks an event and they both compete in that (Jordan picks one on one basketball and of course he would win that). The athletes take turns picking events – events can’t be repeated or have huge overlap – and the first person to win two events in a row wins. That would mean that the other athlete would beat their competitor in an event of the competitor’s choosing.
If one is going to look at the greatest athlete of all time, I think it is imperative to look at the overall pool of the population from which that athlete arose. In essence how popular is the sport and how many people are trying to excel at it? It should make sense that if only 1,000 people are playing a sport, the skill level of the best of that group is very likely not on par with the best athlete in a group of 1,000,000 people attempting to excel at that sport. Being valedictorian of a graduating class of 50 is not the same as being valedictorian of a graduating class of 5,000.
So let’s answer this question.
Is Phelps the Greatest Athlete of All Time? If the litmus test of that definition means competing against other athletes in a variety of other sports then absolutely not, he would not be top 1,000 in terms of athletic ability.
Is Phelps the Greatest Swimmer of All Time? I am not a swimming historian, so I can’t answer that, but if the sport of swimming wants to put him forward as their champion, that seems to be the most appropriate title for him at the moment.
Is Phelps the Greatest Olympian of All Time? In terms of pure medals you can make the argument that he is but as previously stated, I don’t see that as a fair assessment. Some medals simply have more prestige than others, and to excel in a smaller niche sport should not carry the same weight as those activities that draw from millions or literally billions of people. Usain Bolt owning the title of World’s Fastest Man is tough to argue with. Carl Lewis dominating multiple track and field events over multiple Olympics should carry some weight. Jessie Owens doing what he did, when he did it, and how he did it has to be factored in. Simone Biles isn’t finished with her Olympics 2016 as I write this, but her margin of victory as the best all-around gymnast was greater than the victories from 1980-2012 – combined. Let that sink in for a moment. What if there were 30 second floor routines, 60 sec floor routines, and 90 second floor routines? What if they did that with each gymnastic event? You could easily see how someone like Simone Biles could rack up medal after medal if gymnastics were structured the same as swimming, and when you run down the list of physical abilities needed to be an elite gymnast every single category is maxed out.
Is Phelps the Most Fit Athlete of All Time? Again it is not even close. Don’t get me wrong, it does take a tremendous amount of fitness to swim as he does, and it obviously takes an enormous amount of training and dedication to excel at any Olympic sport. But to argue that he is more fit than the gold medalist in the decathlon or someone like Rich Fronning (multiple times CrossFit Games champion) just doesn’t hold up to any sort of scrutiny.
Is Phelps the Greatest Sportsman of All Time? Here we have to look at the depth of the competition. I can’t put Phelps’ ability in his sport on par with Wayne Gretzky for hockey; Michael Jordan for basketball; Pele for soccer; Derrick Jeter for baseball; or Tom Brady for football. He is just not on the same level as those other athletes.
In summary Michael Phelps is very likely the greatest swimmer of all time, but that honor does not mean he should rank up among the very best sportsman or athlete of all time. I personally would not be comfortable saying he is the greatest Olympian of all time. Not enough people swim and swimming doesn’t require a diverse enough array of physical abilities to justify that argument.
But what do you think? Is Phelps overrated or underrated? Who is the best Olympian of all time? Who is the best athlete of all time? Who is the best sportsman of all time? And can it be the same person or are they different?
Business Insider: Michael Phelps: Greatest Olympian Ever
Team USA: Now and Forever, Michael Phelps has become the Greatest Olympian of All Time
BBC: Phelps, Owens, Bolt, Who is the Greatest of All Time
Washington Post: Simone Bile’s Margin of Victory