The swimming portion of the 2016 Olympics has barely ended, and already many people are calling Michael Phelps the best swimmer, best Olympian and/or best athlete ever.  Is he?  In my opinion, he is far and away the best swimmer and best Olympian ever, but not the best athlete.  On what do I base my opinion?  Well, let’s examine the record as objectively as possible and see how he stacks up.

I hesitate to use his many world records as a basis for assessing him, because, as astounding as they may be, at some point they will be broken by other swimmers, and probably sooner than one might think.  World records in swimming do not last long.  For example, most any decent contemporary high school varsity swimmer has clocked faster times than Olympic champions of generations past.  But, there are other measurements of more significance, for example:

  1. How does he compare to the contemporary competition? As Casey Stengel was fond of saying: “You could look it up.”  Although Phelps qualified for the 2000 Olympics at the age of 15 (becoming the youngest American male to do so), he was not yet ready for prime time.  He did not win any medals, but he did serve notice that he was “on the come.”  In 2001 he became the youngest male to set a world record (200 butterfly).  Since then, he has won many world championships and set and re-set world records in the butterfly, freestyle and individual medley with great frequency.  But, his true dominance has come on the biggest stage in his sport – the Olympics.  He has won 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold.  Lest you think he has benefited unduly from being part of relays, 16 of the medals, including 13 golds, have been earned as an individual.  Those are far and away the most by any Olympic athlete.
  2. Versatility.    Phelps has dominated in not one but FIVE eventsthe 100 and 200 freestyle, the 100 and 200 butterfly and the 400 individual medley.  Thus, he is not only fast, he is versatile.
  3. Longevity.  We judge our athletes not only by how outstanding they were in their prime, but also by their longevity.  In many Olympics-dominated sports, such as swimming and track and field, there have been many athletes who were brilliant in one, or perhaps two, Olympiads.   For example, Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in the 1972 Games in Munich; Jesse Owens captured four in Munich in 1936; and Carl Lewis garnered a total of ten in 1984 and 1988.  Phelps has won his medals over five Olympiads, in four of which he exhibited complete domination over a succession of outstanding swimmers in three disciplines at different distances.
  4. Leadership/Mentoring – I believe that these traits have enabled Phelps, through his example, to inspire some of the younger athletes on the swim team to perform better.  For instance,  they respect what he has accomplished (or, perhaps, look upon it with awe) and feel that if they emulate his work ethic, dedication, and single-minded determination and focus, they might achieve the same success.  It should be noted that a couple of the younger swimmers on the team disclosed in interviews that, as kids, they had “worshipped” Phelps and kept posters of him on their bedroom walls.  To be sure, measurements of leadership and mentoring are somewhat subjective, and many leaders and mentors are not outstanding athletes in their own right.  But, in Phelps’ case, for me, the leadership and mentoring he has exhibited in this Olympics has added to his standing as an outstanding athlete.  If further evidence of his leadership is needed, note that he was voted captain of the swim as well as flag-bearer in the Opening Ceremonies, a singular honor.

Michael Fred Phelps II was born on June 30, 1985 in Baltimore.   He is the youngest of three children.  His mother is a middle school principal.  His father is a retired Maryland state trooper who was a good enough football player to receive a tryout with the Washington Redskins. They divorced when Michael was nine, and Michael was raised by his mother.

As a child, Phelps was diagnosed with hyperactivity.  He was exposed to swimming, in part, in the hope that it would provide an outlet for his excess energy.  He took to the sport “like a fish to water,” so to speak.  By ten years old he was setting national records.  At 11, he began training with Bob Bowman, with whom he has been associated ever since.  Phelps has said that Bowman reminds him of a “drill sergeant” because of his regimented and uncompromising manner, but is quick to add that “training with Bob is the smartest thing I’ve ever done.  I’m not going to swim for anyone else.”

Experts have denoted that Phelps’ physique has some highly unusual characteristics that are ideal for a swimmer.  For example, his long, thin torso and short legs reduce drag, his 6′ 7″ arm span, which is abnormally long for his 6′ 4″ height, acts like long, propulsive paddles, and his abnormally large feet provide an effect like flippers.   In other words, he is a physical freak of nature perfectly suited to swimming fast.

Phelps’ life has not been all roses.  There have been some bumps along the way.  In 2004 he was arrested for DUI.  In 2009 he was photographed using a bong at a party.  That cost him a sponsorship with Kellogg.  During the 2008 Games, Phelps came under suspicion of PED use, not because he failed any tests, but because some thought his success was too good to be true naturally.  In response, Phelps volunteered for “Project Believe,” which is under the auspices of the US Anti-Doping Agency.  As a result, Phelps agreed to be subject to more stringent dope testing than normal World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines.    During the Games Phelps passed all nine tests to which he was subjected.  The PED whispers went away.

In 2014 he took a break from swimming.  Without that outlet for his time and energy he became lost.  In September of that year he was arrested for another DUI.  This time, USA Swimming suspended him for six months.  Eventually, he re-dedicated himself to swimming and the 2016 Olympics.  Some say he is now better than ever.

CONCLUSION

So, what now for Phelps.  For now, he says he will take a break from swimming.  He wants to spend time with his fiancé (a former Miss California) and baby son.  In addition, he wants to focus more on The Michael Phelps Foundation, which he founded and funded in 2008.  The foundation, which focuses on “growing” the sport of swimming and promoting healthier lifestyles, is an example of Phelps’ desire to “give back” to the sport that has been so good to him.

So, I think I have established that Phelps is the best swimmer and best Olympian ever.  But, as for best athlete, I would support Jim Thorpe.  No only did he win the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, which require proficiency in a considerable variety of events, but also he played baseball, football, and basketball professionally.    Some of you may present convincing cases for Wilt Chamberlain, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth or others.  I believe Phelps belongs on the upper echelon of athletes, but I would not anoint him the best.

As far as 2020 is concerned, Phelps is non-committal.  But, like any successful athlete, he is super-competitive.  I wouldn’t bet against a return.