So I wanted to get this post in before any of the events had occured, because I don't want any of my copious readers to think that my opinion was in any way built around this Olympics.
As it is, the men's 400 Individual Medley has literally just started, and I'm about to watch Phelps get his first gold medal (I assume)
I'm a huge sports fan. I follow a lot of different ones. Swimming is among my favorites, but it's clearly not the most popular of the ones I follow.
Here's the thing... Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete of all time. Seriously...like...in any sport.
This post is going to include a lot of statistics, because let's be honest no sports argument is worth much without stats.
First, some facts about Phelps in general...
--The race I just watched...the one that he claimed would be his toughest race of his quest to win 8 Gold Medals in China. He won by a solid 2 seconds and broke the world record by almost that amount. No athlete I've ever seen consistently performs so flawlessly under pressure.
-- He currently holds the world record in 6 separate events.
-- He has set separate records 26 times (including tonight).
-- He has NEVER lost the 400 IM. In the 6 years of his swimming that race at that distance, no one has ever beaten him.
-- There are 4 different events where he holds at least 5 of the top 10 times EVER in those events.
-- In the 400 IM, he's set the last 7 world records
-- Same with the 200 IM.
-- The last 6 200 Butterfly records.
-- In 2007 he attempted to win 8 Gold Medals at the World Championships. He won 7. The race he lost was a relay where his teammate caused the USA to be disqualified in an event they were heavily favored.
-- At 15, he was the youngest American man to qualify for the US swim team for 68 years.
-- He currently (with his gold medal tonight) has 7 career Olympic Gold medals and 9 overall. With 3 more Golds at this Olympics, he'd be the all time leader not just in swimming, but over-all. If he medals in each of his events he'll move into 2nd all time with 16 total medals.
-- Keep all of that in mind, and then remember that he's only 23. He will certainly be still in his prime in 2012 at the age of 27. It's conceivable that he swims in 2 more Olympics after this.
Here's my argument:
No athlete in any sport has been as dominant at an age that should by all accounts be BEFORE their prime. Michael Phelps was widely considered to be the greatest swimmer in the world at the age of 18. Most great International swimmers swim in 2 Olympics and compete in 3 or 4 events at most. He's doing 8, and is favored to win them all. He'll have the most gold medals of any athlete ever if he wins half of the events. People can always say "sure...great...the Olympics." Well yeah. The Olympics. Imagine the pressure of working toward a goal that only happens every 4 years. You work that hard for that long and one fuck-up and your dream is done. Over. Yet, the guy comes through every time. He's totally focused. It's unreal.
Lastly, and perhaps my biggest argument. Please name for me an athlete that not only was the best in their sport, but the best by such a great distance. Jordan had Drexler and Magic and Barkley who were not as good as him, but not miles behind. Tiger has had his challengers. Federer has Nadal. There's no one. NO ONE that comes close to Michael Phelps. He's so much better than everyone else that Rowdy Gaines was criticizing him for not coasting in a preliminary because his presence in the finals was already such a foregone conclusion that he should just relax.
People talk about other athletes...
Yes...those guys are all in the conversation, but lemme break it down for you..
Michael Jordan: A good choice, but arguably not the greatest ever in his sport. There are too many other options that make sense. The Big O? Russell? Bird? Wilt? Also, while Jordan was truly great, he was always but one man on a team of 12. Not until he became slightly less selfish with the arrival of Scottie Pippin and Phil Jackson did he ever WIN anything. Essentially... I don't believe anyone in a team sport can be the greatest, because they always rely on others to ultimately succeed.
Federer: Totally dominant for years at a time? Yes. So far above the rest that no one even challenges him? Raphael Nadal would say no. He's never won the French Open. He's great, but not even yet the definitive best tennis player. It's an individual sport, yes, so he has an edge, but it's a little hard to argue for him this week, as Nadal just overtook him in the World Rankings.
Tiger Woods. Speaking of World Rankings... Tiger is so far ahead of everyone else in the golf rankings that he's going to be number one at the end of the year, even though he won't even play in 70% of the events for the year. Of course... Golf's not a sport, it's a game, so he's not really an athlete as much as a "gamer". He's clearly the worlds greatest gamer though.
Jim Brown... Not dominant for long enough. Team sports. Those are the things against him. For him? In the argument for "Greatest Athlete" in 2 sports. LaCrosse and Football. It's close, but his 8 years in the NFL just isn't enough of a sample.
Ali... An interesting argument could be made for Ali... Gold medalist, several heavyweight titles, longevity. Those are all in his favor. The biggest thing I'd say against him...he was legitimately beaten on the big stage a couple of times. My buddy Alan could weigh in on Ali better than I could. The thing with Ali is that there's a mystique that seems to sort of create a "greatness" aura in his favor. It's hard to say though.... He's the one that I think gives Phelps the biggest race, but I have a hard time separating the actual athletic performance and the legend.
Gretzky... He definitely fits the bill as far as being miles ahead of his contemporaries in HIS sport. He's got the records. He's got the championships. He's got the trophies. If Gretzky's performances hadn't been dependent in any way on teammates, I'd give it to him. He's so clearly the greatest hockey player ever that he transcends a sport I hate and made me want to watch on a occasion. He gets credit for that. Still... there's no way to judge him 100% as an individual because he was never on the ice alone.
Michael Phelps just amazes me. The scariest part though? He's maybe only half done in his career. Dara Torres is 41 and is a favorite in the 50 Freestyle. If he swims in 2 more Olympics after this one, he could potentially have 15-20 gold medals. That would be more Golds than all but one person has MEDALS at all.
Anyway, I know this was a boring one, but I wanted to throw it out there before the hype gets crazy if he breaks Spitz's record.
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