Phelps is fabulous, but greatest ever?

Olympics Day 7 - Swimming
Michael Ventre wants to know how Michael Phelps performance at the Beijing Games is more impressive than Michael Jordan winning six NBA championships. Getty Images

Questioning an American institution as beloved as Michael Phelps has its pitfalls. Picketers may gather. Boycotts may be organized. French fries may once again become Freedom Fries, although from what I gather about Phelps’ diet he’d eat a few bushels of them anyway no matter what they were called.

This is not to find fault with a hero, but rather to better place him in context.

During Phelps’ astonishing performances in the Olympic Games in Beijing, a rush to judgment has taken place. Instead of labeling him as the greatest swimmer ever, or as one of the greatest athletes ever, a faction has taken to proclaiming him as the greatest athlete ever.

It takes gumption to christen someone as the greatest athlete ever. Even if you want to dismiss competitors from the Stone Age and Bronze Age as paunchy poseurs, there were quite a few individuals after those periods in history who might have given Phelps a fight over that designation. The Roman Empire alone was rife with guys who, if they lived today, would figure prominently on Phil Knight’s Blackberry.

The essential problem with Phelps’ candidacy is his sport. He is a swimmer, and he trains like a madman. He devours those 12,000 calories per day because he burns them off in five hours-plus of daily training. Swimming is superb exercise, and anyone who can dominate the sport like Phelps has done is worthy of laurel wreaths, parades and an appearance on “Letterman.”

But swimming happens to be a sport that provides numerous opportunities to win gold medals. Phelps won eight gold medals because he was able to enter eight events. The fact that he is capitalizing on all his chances, and in record times, is indeed cause for celebration and adulation.

But consider the poor amateur wrestler. His training regimen is no less fanatical. He has to cut weight and endure injuries that accompany such a physically bruising endeavor. He gets little or no love from the American masses, because swimming is a gleaming spectacle for network television while wrestling is a gritty, sweaty and sometimes ugly grind.

And what is the wrestler’s reward after months and years of training and after persevering through a brutal tournament bracket? ONE gold medal.

How about the marathoner? Not only is his chosen sport lonely and grueling — Jim McKay’s famous description still resonates: “You must run the marathon by yourself, or not at all” — but this year it takes place in Beijing, which means a runner’s experience in the Olympic marathon is akin to placing one’s mouth over a factory smokestack.

And if the marathoner happens to outlast the field of world-class runners while at the same time maintaining function in both lungs, what is his payoff? ONE gold medal.

Just because Phelps’ sport provides him more chances doesn’t mean it’s easier. But it is what it is. When you flash eight gold medals in front of the American people (not to forget the six he won in Athens), it looks shinier and more impressive than one.

Also, to further add to the perception, Phelps is a good guy, humble, funny, handsome, personable. Because of what type of person he is, naturally people will want to not only root for him, but place him on a pedestal above all the rest.

Phelps is capturing the imagination of the American people at a period in history when most of the news is bad. The housing market is in the tank. What’s in our tanks costs a heck of a lot more per gallon. The Iraq war continues. The presidential campaign feels like it has been going on for decades. Unemployment is up. Inflation is up. And the dollar is down, along with our spirits.

So when an athlete like Michael Phelps comes along, he fills a need. He is an example of the American dream come true. He is a testament to hard work and determination. He is the distraction America needed to get past all the negativity.

But greatest athlete ever?

How is what Michael Phelps is doing more impressive than what Michael Jordan did? Jordan led his team to six championships — and yes, I realize six is fewer than eight — and each time he did so by slogging through a preseason, an 82-game regular season and a postseason. In the process, he dominated a sport in which his efforts were often contested by two or more defenders.

Even in an Olympic context, Phelps might not be the greatest Olympian ever. Certainly he’s the greatest swimmer. But traditionally the “greatest athlete” tag in the Olympics goes to the winner of the decathlon. A decathlete has to compete in 10 events, which means his skill set needs to be far more varied than that of Phelps. The only reason the decathlete won’t be celebrated as enthusiastically as Phelps during this Olympiad is because there isn’t a perfect American specimen who has been embraced by Reebok or Nike or Adidas.

Many people tend to overreact to the moment and bestow grand proclamations upon what they just witnessed because they are rightfully awed and impressed and need to place a rating on it. Phelps is being gushed over because he’s incredible. He deserves the attention. He deserves the glory.

But let’s hold off on the “greatest athlete ever” ceremonies. Relatives of athletes who have wowed civilization over the past several thousand years or so — not to mention many of the current competitors in Beijing — might object.