Image: Michael Phelps
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Michael Phelps has more Olympic gold medals than anyone else. He's accomplished that feat in a way that no one's ever done. That makes him the world's greatest athlete ever, writes MSNBC contributor Mike Celizic.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/16/2008 11:57:43 PM ET 2008-08-17T03:57:43
OPINION

There isn't any question who the greatest athlete in the world is. He was on the top step of the medal stand after completion of his grueling Olympic performance, his hand over his heart as the Star-Spangled Banner filled the Water Cube.

You know his name by now: Michael Fred Phelps. You also know his accomplishments: more gold medals in Olympic competition than anyone has ever won before.

And to the distinction of being the greatest Olympic athlete ever, we can add the ultimate: World’s Greatest Athlete.

Ever.

That’s not a title that can be blithely bestowed. The world has seen a lot of great athletes — Jim Thorpe, Paavo Nurmi, Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, Tiger Woods, Pele, Lance Armstrong to name the obvious ones. If you’re going to say Phelps is better than all of them, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Fair enough.

Let’s start with the presumption that if a person is to be considered for the title of the best ever, he or she will have to have done something that’s never been done before. It’s not enough to win championships or set records. You’ve got to have more of them than anybody else and you’ve got to do it a way that no one’s ever done. That knocks Tiger Woods out of the discussion already. If he wins golf’s professional Grand Slam — something no one’s ever done — he can get back in the argument. But not until then. It takes out Jordan, too, whose six titles are not the most anyone’s ever won.

You also have to dominate a sport that has a deep pool of highly trained and motivated talent. That knocks out the old-timers like Nurmi, Thorpe and Owens, who were competing in the infancy of modern sports in an era of haphazard training and limited depth of competition.

Slideshow: Day 9's emotional moments You have to do it on the biggest stage under the greatest pressure. And you have to do it in spectacular fashion. I would submit that you also have to do it as an individual because it’s really impossible to totally judge someone when he’s part of a team.

Already, the list has shortened considerably. We’re pretty much left with Lance Armstrong and his record seven consecutive Tour de France titles, and Phelps with his 14 Olympic gold medals, with a record eight in these Beijing Games. With his passage of Mark Spitz’s record of seven for one Olympics — Phelps is my choice.

I’m going to assume that Armstrong won his titles cleanly, an assumption that many in cycling will disagree with but one that has to be made because he never tested positive. And I’m going to say Phelps beats him on versatility. Armstrong was a one-race specialist. It’s a grueling and ridiculously difficult race, but it’s one event. Phelps is a three-event champion, winning his gold medals in freestyle, butterfly and the individual medley.

That’s why Mark Spitz, winner of those iconic seven swimming golds back in 1972, isn’t even in this discussion. He swam two individual events — the butterfly and freestyle — and won three medals in relays as a member of a team that was light years ahead of the rest of the world. He didn’t swim the individual medley, which is the hardest race in swimming, combining all four competitive strokes — butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. The seven medals are an impressive haul, but Spitz isn’t really in the same league with Phelps.

Phelps has already done things we’ve never seen before and are unlikely to see again. And he’s done it every time he’s left the starting blocks. His 14 gold medals for his career are the record. In Beijing, he won eight gold medals, five of them all by himself and three as a member of two relay teams. He won two of the golds on the same day, and seven medals came with a new world record.

None of this should be possible.

Swimming is a highly evolved sport. All the athletes use the same techniques and have access to the same level of coaching, training regimens, nutrition and technology. Once, the great majority of swimming champions came from a handful of countries — the United States, the Netherlands, Australia, and the Soviet Union and its satellites. Everybody in the pool had white skin. Today, the entire world has jumped in the pool. Korea has won its first Olympic gold and China also won its first medal ever. An African-American, Cullen Jones, was a member of the gold-medal 4x100-meter freestyle relay.

In Spitz’s day, swimmers were amateurs; they had to have day jobs to support themselves. Today, they’re professionals and can devote all their time to training. The overall level of competition has never been higher.

When talent pools get deeper and training more scientific, it gets harder to dominate. But that’s what Phelps is doing. For four years, every other swimmer in the world in his events had been working to beat him. The gap between him and everyone else should be narrowing. Instead, it’s gotten bigger.

Phelps doesn’t just win, he mostly blows away the competition. He won the 400-meter individual medley by more than two seconds and the 200-meter freestyle by just under two seconds — an eternity in a sport in which races are often decided by hundredths of a second. The 200-meter butterfly was closer — .63 seconds — but his goggles filled with water when he dove in and he couldn’t see the entire race. This can be a problem when it’s time to hit the wall and turn around, but he managed it. His time was another world record, but afterward he said he was a little disappointed about the goggles because he could have gone faster. Of course, he won the 100 butterfly by the closest of margins (.01 seconds), but we'll forgive him that. Oh, and in the butterflies and medley, he didn’t even wear that high-tech Speedo LZR swimsuit that’s gotten so much publicity. He didn't need it.

And it is that total dominance that makes him the greatest ever. It’s not just this year, either. Phelps was three months shy of his 16th birthday and five months past the 2000 Sydney Olympics when he became the youngest male ever to set a world record. The record was in the 200-meter butterfly, a race he has dominated more than any other. He has nine of the 10 fastest times posted in that race and 14 of the top 25.

In the 200-meter individual medley, he has 15 of the top 25 times. In the 400-meter IM, he has 12 of the top 25. He hasn’t lost a major race in the last two years and he’s lost only once in the last three years, and that loss was when he decided to take a shot at the backstroke, which is not his specialty. It was at the 2006 Pan-Pacific championships, and even then he took silver.

In his three specialties, he’s undefeated for three full years. He swims multiple races each day in different disciplines, and he never loses.

No one in no sport has ever been as good. No one has ever been so far ahead of his competition in so many events. No one has ever been better than Michael Phelps, the World’s Greatest Athlete now and forever.

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