Michael Phelps’ last race mirrored almost every other race he has ever swam. From his dominance to the gold medal win, nothing was different. But a surreal feeling seemed to have overtaken everyone watching and those involved. How could it not? Phelps was the greatest Olympian of all time performing in his final act.
Now with his career in books, is Michael Phelps the greatest athlete of all time? But what defines the greatest athlete of all time?
Is it the ability to dominate his or sport for a substantial period of time, like no one else has? Phelps’ final Olympic career line is unprecedented – 4-time Olympian, 24 Olympic Finals, 22 Medals, and 18 Gold Medals. In terms of total medals, the next closest Olympian had 18, and for gold medals, the next closest were four Olympians tied at nine.
Does it mean raising the standard for greatness in his or her sport? As a teenager at age 19 Phelps won eight medals, six of them gold, in Athens. Then in his encore he set the bar even higher. In the 2008 Olympics, Phelps broke a once-thought untouchable record by winning eight gold medals in a single Olympic games. Phelps reached a level so high that his London performance of six medals, including four gold medals, was considered underachieving.
Is it their ability to do make the impossible seem possible by elevating their game to a new level? In Beijing, he rallied from a seemingly insurmountable defecit to win the 100m Butterfly by .01 seconds. Heck I knew that Phelps won the race before watching it, and still couldn’t believe Phelps had any shot to win with 10m left. It was literally like watching the impossible become reality.
Does it mean the athlete can be so great that sometimes we question if he or she is even human? Back in 2008, it was a legitimate question for Phelps. He won eight gold medals in eight races in eight days, including setting five world records in five days.
Is it their ability to perform when the doubters and naysayers are the loudest? Phelps, America’s darling from 2008, was cast aside for the surging Ryan Lochte after losing the 400 IM. His critics boasted his time was over. (including me, and I was wrong…) Nothing fazed Phelps as he rebounded with a stellar split in the 4×100 freestyle relay and four gold medals to close out his career.
How about having a transcendent once-in-a-generation impact on his or her sport? Phelps turned swimming from a lesser-known sport to one of America’s most popular non-mainstream sports. In the first week of the 2012 Olympics primetime coverage, with swimming as the main draw, NBC had its highest Olympics ratings ever.
Phelps’ influence goes past attracting fans, because he’s pushed his fellow swimmers to new heights. His competitiors, including Ryan Lochte, trained harder and longer because to win the gold they would have to get past Phelps.
As the greatest Olympian of all-time, he’s been an idol to many swimmers including South Africa’s Chad le Clos. When le Clos watched Phelps’ greatness in Athens at age 12, he set his goals on being the best swimmer he could possibly be. Eight years later, in the 200m Butterfly, le Clos out touched Phelps at the wall to win the gold medal. Le Clos called the “greatest moment of my life,” a testament to how much Phelps meant to him and his career.
The definition of the greatest athlete of all-time comprises all of this.
While Phelps is certainly in the conversation, his childhood idol Michael Jordan seems to be favorite, but for different reasons.
Swimming isn’t as prominent as other sports like basketball. The Olympics happen every four years, while other sports are in the spotlight for five to eight months annually.
Maybe that puts Phelps achievements into a greater perspective. Four years of training comes down to a massive pressure-filled week, where tiny mistakes can change everything. Or those four-year gaps put them farther into irrelevance as time goes on.
Maybe it’s Phelps who has hurt his chances of being the greatest athlete of all time the most. By winning time and time again, Phelps made the triumph of winning one of the world’s greatest prizes look routine, almost easy. Ironically, Phelps’ over-the-top dominance may be his legacy’s Achilles heel.
Still no athlete may ever have meant more to his sport than Phelps did, and no athlete may ever have dominated his sport like Phelps did.
During Saturday’s press conference Phelps said, “I’ve looked up to Michael Jordan all my life because he’s done something that nobody else has ever done…”
Well now so has Phelps, and maybe he’s done more…