It’s been difficult to escape the hype surrounding Michael Phelps’ achievements at the Olympic Games following the addition of six more medals at the London games which has made him the most decorated of all Olympians.
Four more gold and two silver medals have sent the American swimming star clear at the top of the list when it comes to the total number of medals won.
In the likely event that the London 2012 Aquatics Centre has witnessed Phelps’ final race at the Olympics, his record-breaking final tally of medals will total 22, of which 18 are gold – another record.
Such is the achievement, it’s a record that may stand for many decades. But does it make Michael Phelps the greatest Olympian ever, a claim which continues to be made?
For me, the answer is a clear no.
Swimming is a sport at which competitors are capable of entering the number of events that Phelps has needed to take part in order to claim so much success. The possibility exists for the best swimmer in the world at any one time to take part in multiple swimming events, and become a multiple Olympic champion.
Of course, swimming isn’t on its own in that regard, but whereas it’s quite common to see cyclists and sprinters take part in two or three separate events, Phelps was able to contest eight separate swimming events during his record-breaking haul of gold medals during the Beijing games four years ago.
Usain Bolt is sure to be remembered as an Olympic legend. But it’d be utterly impossible to imagine him competing not only in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m, but also the 400m, 800m, 1500m, 4x400m and perhaps the long jump, too.
Secondly, it isn’t unusual for swimmers to compete in two races within a short space of time. On day 4 at the Olympic Aquatic Centre, Phelps was edged out in the final of the Men’s 200m Butterfly to Chad Le Clos of South Africa.
The medal ceremony took place just over half an hour after the race had finished, and neither competitor appeared eager to hurry around the pool during the victory lap, even with both set to compete in the 4x200m Freestyle event just over ten minutes from then – an event which USA won, with Phelps certainly not showing any effects of fatigue.
To use another couple of examples from the track, how likely would Mo Farah be to be able to set off on another long distance run around the track so soon after completing either the 10,000m or 5,000m, and yet still remain competitive? Or could Christine Ohuruogu challenge for a medal in a track event within an hour of running a 400m final?
Then there are those sports where medals are only awarded after a gruelling set of stages or events. Ben Ainslie, for example, had to triumph over 11 races in order to be crowned Olympic champion in the men’s Finn event. He has only one gold to show for his efforts which took eight days from start to finish, though he is rightly regarded as the greatest Olympic sailor having now won gold in four separate Olympics. Unlike those who compete in the pool, the likes of Ainslie get just a single chance of winning a gold medal every four years.
Jessica Ennis won gold in the women’s heptathlon event, but being the world’s best all round female track and field athlete again is only rewarded by a single gold medal. Likewise for the men, over the ten events required in the decathlon.
Each of these athletes will leave their own mark on their respective sports and events, but there is simply no genuinely fair way in which competitors across such vastly different sports can be compared.
As far as swimming goes, Phelps has a strong case for being considered the greatest male swimmer of all time. But being the master of a sport which is particularly generous with its handing out of medals shouldn’t give him any higher standing than so many other Olympic greats across other sports.
So, unless Michael Phelps can run or jump faster and further than our heroes of the track, sail quicker than those who compete on the seas, or perform an array of gravity-defying gymnastic manoeuvres whilst swinging from a high bar, his status as an Olympic swimming legend will remain secure, but that’s where the acclaim has to end. He cannot be looked upon as being any more a legend than those who are “greats” in their own specialities.
It may be that Phelps remains the most decorated Olympian for many years to come – but don’t call him the greatest of all time.