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Olympians share thoughts on ‘perfect athlete’

Emerging stars from the Beijing Olympics  share their surprising choices for the perfect athlete.
Beijing Olympics Swimming Mens Relays
Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, says his perfect athlete is Michael Jordan.Mark J. Terrill / AP
/ Source: Forbes

Michael Phelps has won eight gold medals and set seven world records during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Counting the six gold medals he won in Athens in 2004, the American swimmer has already won more golds than any other Olympian in history — and become the only athlete to ever win eight medals in a single Olympic game.

To many sports fans, Phelps projects the image of the perfect athlete. But when we asked the 23-year-old swimmer who he thought the perfect athlete was, he chose basketball legend Michael Jordan.

"I think Michael Jordan is the best athlete in the world, not only for how he played the game, but for all he did to grow the sport of basketball," Phelps said.

As part of our special report on the Beijing games, earlier this summer we asked 35 former and current Olympians to answer the question: "Who is the perfect athlete?" The stars that are emerging in these games had some surprising choices.

"The perfect athlete is Lance Armstrong," said Nastia Liukin, the American gymnast who won gold in the woman's all-around event. "What he achieved, no other human has or, in my opinion, will. It's hard enough surviving cancer, but winning seven Tour de France titles after that is amazing."

Phelps' teammate Cullen Jones, who won gold in world record time in the 4x100 free relay, had trouble choosing a single "perfect athlete."

"I'd have to say it’s a tie between Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods," the 24-year-old said. "Jordan has the ability to be a closer — the person everyone on his team can count on when the team needs a shot at the buzzer. I'd like to think the three other people I am swimming with can count on me in the same way."

"Tiger Woods," Jones continued, "has the ability to drown out all distraction and focus in on the moment. I feel like I am in a similar situation in swimming. Since swimming is an individual sport, how you perform can impact only you."

Shawn Crawford, who won gold in the men's 200 meter sprint in Athens and will compete in the same event in Beijing, chose Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the American track and field athlete who won six medals, including three gold in two different Olympic games.

"Jackie Joyner-Kersee is the perfect athlete because she dedicates every day of her life to perfecting herself," Crawford said. "It's not so she can be the greatest athlete for her own selfish reasons, but so she can deliver hope to a younger generation."

Gymnast Jonathan Horton, who won bronze in the men's team event, was perhaps the most thoughtful of our current Olympians.

"I don't think there is such a thing as the perfect athlete," Horton mused. "To be the perfect athlete, I think one would need to be great at any sport they tried. Tiger Woods is an incredible golfer. He is physically and mentally tough and near perfect at what he does, but would he have the ability to do gymnastics? I don't think so."