National Columnist

Phelps rules the pool, but former track star Owens best Olympian of all time


If it were about stats, Michael Phelps -- 20 medals -- would be the greatest Olympian. (US Presswire)  
If it were about stats, Michael Phelps -- 20 medals -- would be the greatest Olympian. (US Presswire)  

Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympic swimmer of all time. That's what he is.

But he's not the greatest Olympian -- any sport, any era -- of all time. This is not a sabermetric debate, an answer that can be found in statistics. If it were, then sure, Michael Phelps would be the greatest Olympian ever. The man has won 20 medals, more than anyone. If this were a question of numbers, it wouldn't be a question at all. Twenty is more than 19, more than 18, 17, 16 ...

Twenty medals. Until someone comes along and puts 21 on the board, Phelps is the greatest ever.

If that were the only criteria.

To some people, of course, that is the only criteria. Anything else, anything more, would take too much effort, too much thinking. Which guy from which sport in which era is the greatest Olympian ever? Man, that's too much. But Michael Phelps has the most medals, so I say it's him!


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The greatest Olympian of all time is Jesse Owens, a distinction that should have been retired in 1936, perhaps forever though I can't tell the future. Maybe the world will change some day to the point that another athlete comes along and dominates an entire Olympiad while also sneering in the face of evil. And if that athlete comes along, he or she can stand alongside Jesse Owens as the greatest ever. But what Owens did in 1936 can never be topped, and probably can never be matched.

I mean, honestly. Michael Phelps? The greatest Olympian ever? Him?

There's more to greatness than winning. There has to be, or countries the world over would make like East Germany in the 1970s or China now and turn their children into humanoids, experimenting with their physiology or psychology until producing the greatest army of inhuman excellence the Olympic Games have ever seen.

What Phelps has done in the past three Olympiads is win. More medals than anyone. That's one hell of a feat, and history will reward him handsomely for it.

But what Jesse Owens did in 1936 staggers the imagination. There was the winning, sure, and it was staggering all by itself. Owens turned in arguably the greatest one-man track performance in Olympics history, winning gold medals in the 100, 200, 400 relay and long jump. No one had done that before, and not until Carl Lewis in 1984 did anyone do it again, and Lewis' achievement in Los Angeles -- out of fairness to Owens -- should bear an asterisk: Those were the Olympics boycotted by 14 Eastern Bloc countries, including athletic heavyweights such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Germany.

Lewis ran in his home country, and didn't have to run against the enemy.

Owens went into the enemy's home and beat them all.

This was Germany in 1936, remember. Hitler's Germany. Evil. And Hitler already was propagating the superiority of the Aryan race. In fact, he figured the 1936 Olympics -- held in Berlin -- would show the world that he was right.

That was the atmosphere Jesse Owens encountered. Imagine his thoughts as he leaned into the starter's blocks, knowing Hitler -- and all those Hitler had brainwashed -- were in the stadium, wanting Germany to win, yes, but wanting Jesse Owens to lose.

Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time? Come on now. All the guy does is swim. Take the politics out of it -- take Jesse Owens out of it -- and I wouldn't put Phelps past just about any decathlon gold medalist. Greatest athletes in the world? You would be hard-pressed to find one greater than a man who can run the 100 in 10.23 seconds, the 400 in 45.68 seconds and the 1,500 in 4:14.48 ... as well as long jumping 27 feet, high jumping 6-11 and pole vaulting 17-5.

American decathlete Ashton Eaton can do all of those things. He's an Olympian. You want to tell me that Michael Phelps' accomplishments in the pool, however unique they are, are greater than that?

Silly. Michael Phelps is no Jim Thorpe, who won gold medals in 1912 in the pentathlon and decathlon and finished fourth in the high jump -- all while wearing a pair of mismatched shoes he found in the trash, after someone had stolen his spikes. Thorpe had to wear extra socks on one foot because that shoe was too big.

Michael Phelps over Jim Thorpe? No chance.

Nor would I put Phelps over Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who won medals in four Olympiads -- and combined the versatile brilliance required of the heptathlon with the single-event focus of the long jump, winning gold in both in 1988.

Those are just the Americans I would put ahead of Phelps -- I wouldn't put Carl Lewis ahead of him, by the way -- but other countries have strong candidates as well. British decathlete Daley Thompson, Cuban runner Alberto Juantorena and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt belong in the conversation of the greatest Olympian ever. So do boxer Cassius Clay, swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnast Nadia Comaneci.

"Greatest Olympian ever" is a subjective topic, is my point. Right answer? Jesse Owens does it for me, but maybe someone else does it for you. It's tough to say which answer is right. But I can tell you this:

Michael Phelps is wrong.

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