Is Michael Phelps the Greatest Athlete of All-Time

  37 Gold Medal Mel Stewart | August 04th, 2012 | Featured, International, London 2012 Olympics, News

Michael Phelps won his 18th Olympic gold medal in the men’s 4×100 medley relay, bringing his career-haul to 22 Olympic medals overall. 18 gold medals more than doubles gymnasts Larisa Latynina’s career performance.

Is Michael Phelps the greatest athlete of all-time?

Sports analysis can do the math however they choose. Yes, Carl Lewis dominated track and field for a dozen years, and speed-skater Eric Heiden went five for five at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, and Jesse Owens prevailed in-front Hilter at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany…but their achievements, by  the numbers, do not compare.

Phelps deserves a seat beside the greatest sports icons of last 100 years: Babe Ruth, Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali.

Sadly, Phelps could add more to tally. He’s 27. Swimmers have won medals into late their 30s and early 40s, like Jason Lezak and Dara Torres. Phelps has at least three to four more medals in him. He could certainly medal at the 2016 Olympics in the 100 butterfly, 200 IM, and the 4×100 medley relay.

Phelps put a big exclamation point on his career today, and if you judge an athlete’s greatness by their dominance in their sport, then Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete that has ever lived.

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37 Comments on "Is Michael Phelps the Greatest Athlete of All-Time"


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FREEBEE
3 years 9 months ago

I really like Michael Phelps. And I consider him amongst the greatest athletes but I could never think of calling him the greatest athlete of all time. Olympian yes, but we know that term is dubious because it is frankly impossible to quantify the differences between sports other than medal count.

Jiggs
3 years 9 months ago

Babe Ruth looks a little like Gumby Ruth

Martin Zubero
3 years 9 months ago

In my opinion, Michael achieved the pinnacle of athletics four years ago in China winning eight gold medals. Lucky in the 4 x 100 free relay and 100 fly…..maybe. So what he won eight.

What he did in London might not have lived to other peoples expectations but a three peat in two events is unprecedented period. Eight golds in one Olympiad puts Michael in another stratosphere. The bar has been set at an extremely high level that will be hard to surpass. Spitz set the bar, Phps broke it and someone else will down the road. Michael we will miss you.

Big JJ
3 years 9 months ago

I dont know if Phelps is the best of all time, but I dont think anyone trained longer and harder to dominate than Phelps did.

junker23
3 years 9 months ago

Guys that get medals in 4 or 5 Olympics, I suppose. Carl Lewis comes to mind.

JackedAndTan
3 years 9 months ago

“Babe Ruth, Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali.” Great sports icons… I like how they are all Americans in “commercial” sports, maybe that’s why they’re iconic?

– Al Oerter, 4 Olympic discus golds in a row
– Carl Lewis, 4 Olympic long jump golds in a row (plus a bunch of other golds)

and my personal favorite:
Steven Redgrave, winning a bronze in rowing in 1984 before going on to win gold FIVE Olympics in a row! That’s 20 years of Olympic excellence in a physically brutal sport

John
3 years 9 months ago

100 years from now people will still be talking about Michael Phelps. How many athletes can you say that about? He is without question the greatest Olympian, and his 18 gold medals will probably never be approached. I vote yes for him being the greatest athlete.

3 years 9 months ago

The only other one I can think about, who isn’t mentioned here, is Jim Thorpe. Michael Jordan will probably be there too. Jesse Owens, though that’s a combination of political and physical. Very, very rare group.

Sammy
3 years 9 months ago

Greatest swimmer of all time. No doubt. There are so many other sports and you can’t compare apples and oranges. They are all so different in so many ways.

Michael is an incredible competitor.

swamcoach
3 years 9 months ago

Mel…the answer is YES! 100% for sure. Anybody who want to argue…BRING IT ON!!!!!!!

3 years 9 months ago

This was on ESPN First Take a few days ago.

JP
3 years 9 months ago

Because you know hand-eye coordination is the only thing that determines athletic ability… Skip Bayless is the definition of hit-and-miss and that’s definitely a miss.

kcswimjk
3 years 9 months ago

Maybe if Skip Bayless had better hand eye coordination, he wouldn’t have missed so badly…?

joel lin
3 years 9 months ago

I could not help but think did Carl Lewis need any hand eye coordination to run the 100 Or 200?

I also thought about seeing the Shaw swim against Phelps. It isn’t wrong in my opinion that many great swimmers are not so good at land sports, but vice versa also applies.

swimfan88
3 years 8 months ago

Based on that Tiger Woods would be considered one of the greatest athletes of all time before Phelps. Hand eye coordination is KEY!!!

3 years 9 months ago

Greatest of all time. Nothing can convince me Otherwise

3 years 9 months ago

I can try. Check out these stats:

NFL 1920’s All-Decade Team
1912 College Football Champion as RB, Kicker, Punter, and defensive back (with 25 touchdowns)
1912 Intercollegiate Ballroom dancing national champion
Two-time college football All-American
1912 Olympic Decathlon Champion
1912 Olympic Pentathlon Champion
1912 Olympic High Jump 4th place
6-year career in major league baseball
Professional basketball player (exact details not well-known)
Also was a competitive swimmer, lacrosse player, and ice hockey player.

Phelps is amazing. It was a different era. But MAN was Ian Thorpe an ATHLETE.

John
3 years 9 months ago

I agree that Jim Thorpe should be #2. He was decades ahead of his competitors.

junker23
3 years 9 months ago

But, I mean, early 1900s.

liquidassets
3 years 9 months ago

That is very convincing; whoever that is (? Jim Thorpe) wins…..

3 years 9 months ago

Not a bad resume… I guess. 😉

jean michel
3 years 9 months ago

everybody forgot to mention Michael Johnson in the list of great athletes …he still holds the 400 meter WR isn`t it ???? and is stilll looking young and fresh and such a cool gentle guy . Greetings to all the great Michaels ….a forename that carries grt talent it seems .

jean michel
3 years 9 months ago

for Michael Phelps , i agree , greatest swimmer of all times , of his time and wonderfull being in the same time . He had a great meet …showing his best last speed to anchor the 400 free relay . I loved the way he swam that race ….incredible , specially after just loosing on the 400 IM > Not many athletes can do that nowadays .
Thanks Michael , i will miss watching in the pool . Thanks to your bejing performances , my freestyle has improves drastically and my passion for swimming is intact . I great poster of yourself will be put on a wall in my indian guesthouse to ho

jean michel
3 years 9 months ago

…..to honor the true inspiration for swimming u brought into my life . Love , peace and respect . We maybe forget also to mention his IM kids programms , which shows how Grt his heart is allready at a very early age . That makes him even a greater athlete . We are all one

WHOKNOWS
3 years 9 months ago

the 100 meter swims are like 400 meters of track and the 200 meter swims are like an 800 meter run. You would never see a track athlete run two 400’s or god forbid two 800’s in the same finals period of one hour.

DanJohnRob
3 years 9 months ago

I’m SO SICK of people underestimating the sport of swimming! Just because swimmers don’t make millions of dollars for throwing balls around and have their competitions televised every week does not mean they are any less GREAT athletes! People who play basketball, baseball, hockey and football, in my (albeit biased) opinion, have no idea about the kind of flexibility, strength, skill, and endurance necessary to win an Olympic swimming competition. And how many of these athletes have careers in which they are at the pinnacle of what they do for over a decade?! No, you can’t compare sports, each requires such a different set of qualities, so swimming fans will have to content themselves with Phelps being remembered as the greatest swimmer or Olympian in history; but, in my mind and the minds of all those who know about the demands of competitive swimming, Phelps IS the Worlds Greatest Athlete.

Sammy
3 years 9 months ago

Edwin Moses won 122 400 meter intermediate hurdle races in a row, Gold medal is 1976, boycott in 1980 and gold in 1984 and bronze in 1988.

He was pretty good……….

But, this is an argument that really does not have an exact answer. Never will.

Someone will say that some Indian or Australian cricket player is the best athlete ever. I know absolutely nothing about nor do I understand cricket at all.

3 years 9 months ago

Greatest All time athlete?
Its hard to say…
For soccer fans, it is Pelé.
For Basketball, the Great Michael Air Jordan(that guy was a beast).
As Olympian, no doubt, but i will put Paavo Nurmi 1924 five golds near Phelps 8 because its probably something we will never see in Athletics again.

drdov
3 years 9 months ago
Lisa
3 years 9 months ago

I really loved that story, two great guys!

cupofjoe
3 years 8 months ago

I knew this debate was going to start back up again the day after Phelps finished his career. It is such a silly argument. Everybody has an opinion, ususually based on his or her favorite sport. I think the great thing for swimming is that Phelps is in the discussion. When has that ever happened? Everybody has their opinion as to what makes a great athlete but one thing we can all agree on–anyone in the debate has to have dominated his/her sport. And who has dominated a sport more than Phelps. As to all around athletic ability, who knows. In some regards the best all around athletes, like decathletes, don’t dominate any one sport. I’ve heard an argument for Deon Sanders, Bo Jackson,Dave Winfield, etc. Although all were great in multiple sports, NONE of them was the all time best in any one sport. With this in mind, here is my top 10 list of all time greats, in no particular order: Babe Ruth,Michael Phelps, Babe Didrickson, Michael Jordan, Carl Lewis, Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Brown, Ali, Wayne Gretsky, Usain Bolt. Maybe someday Missy Franklin will join that list.

Ernie
3 years 8 months ago

Jim Brown was arguably the greatest Football and Lacrosse player of all time. And Wilt Chamberlain was one of the top 5 Basketball and Volleyball players of all time, not to mention nearly the entire Kansas track team in the mid 50’s. So to say none of these was the all time best in any sport (or close to it) just doesn’t hold water.

DanJohnRob
3 years 8 months ago

Maybe the measure of “greatest athlete of all time” should be at least partly dependent upon the athlete’s impact on their sport. We’ll have to wait and see, but I bet there are a lot of young swimmers in the world who are training to “be like Mike” (Phelps, not Jordan)!

Randall Stevens
3 years 8 months ago

I’m sick and tired of the general public/media claiming what Michael Phelps did is inflated because of medal count. If there was a sprint runner that was truly as versatile as Phelps, he/she would be able to walk away with golds in 100, 200, 110 hurdles, 4×1 relay, 4×2 relay, and the long jump. In addition, he/she should be able to jump up to the 400 and 400 hurdles and at least contend for medals (the same way Michael drops down to the 100 fly, 100 free in relays, and is even an elite 100 backstroker).

If you want a more analogous argument, a middle distance runner (analogous to Phelps being more of a middle distance swimmer) has a chance to run the 800 (like a 200 free/fly) and 1500 (like a 400 IM), and should be able to drop down to the 400, 400 hurdles, and 4×400 relay (like 100’s). Nobody in track has EVER been able to run the 400, 800, and 1500 at an elite level at the same time (and dominate events for 10 years in all three distances), and likely never will.

Until we see someone on the track put together one of these programs for THREE straight Olympics, don’t even try to compare them to Phelps.

liquidassets
3 years 8 months ago

Recovery times are supposedly a lot longer for track events than swimming events, and it limits overall number of events. Although that could be in part because swimmers train harder.

Ernie
3 years 8 months ago

Greatest athlete ever should be able to dominate in different sports, not just one sport with different events. Seeing Carl Lewis throw a baseball ruined the idea for me that he was greatest athlete ever. List should be from Jim Thorpe, Bo Jackson and Jim Brown.

dominik
3 years 5 months ago

That is a tough question. Who is the greatest athlete ever?

IMO it cannot be a pre integration baseball player. ruth was a beast but baseball was purely american back then and it was also not allowing african americans to participate, so Ruth is out.

Ali is great too but then again boxing was not really integrated back then since the boxers of communist countries who have dominated the amateurs for years were not allowed to compete (especially teofilo stevenson). so boxing was also purely american which rules Ali out (as great as he was).

Jordan is an interesting case but still at this time basketball was not really integrated. it was an american thing then and a single nation sport cannot have the goat athlete. a more interesting case is lebron since basketball is now much more intergrated (even had an european MVP in nowitzki), but still I would say basketball is not big enough in most countries outside the US.

A soccer player (messi, pele)? Soccer is huge but how a a sport that is not popular in the most important country of the world (the US) have the goat?

It cannot be a winter athlete because we need a really big and popular sport so winter is out. american football is obviously out too since it is purely american.

Roger federer? tennis is big and integrated but it is a rich mens sport. that means a lot of talent is excluded reducing the talent pool.

swimming? phelps did great but swimming is mostly done by white people and not at all in africa. so he is not the goat.

IMO the best candidate is Carl lewis. He was successfull in several disciplines of a big and fully integrated sport. but then again he admitted doping so he is a tough choice too. very hard to make a decision here.

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About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly.As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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