On air: Is Michael Phelps the greatest ever olympian?

He’s won six gold medals already and could bag another two over the weekend. So far the 23 year old American swimmer has won a record equalling 12 career Olympic gold medals.

If he wins 8 gold medals at this Olympics he would surpass Mark Spitz’s Olympic record of seven gold medals in one Games, set in Munich in 1972.

To put his haul in perspective, if Michael Phelps was a country he would be seventh in the medals table! So is he the greatest Olympian ever? Or as 400m Gold medallist Michael Johnson said, if we could run on the track forwards, backwards and sideways we’d be able to win that many medals at a single Olympics.

Is Steve Redgrave the greatest Olympian? He won 5 Golds in 5 consecutive Olympics. Here are some other suggestions.

46 Responses to “On air: Is Michael Phelps the greatest ever olympian?”

  1. August 15, 2008 at 14:55

    Taking into consideration that Michael Phelps is only 23 years old and has won 12 gold medals and potentially could go on winning more, there is no argument that he should be the greatest olympian of all time.

  2. 2 Nick in USA
    August 15, 2008 at 14:57

    I think Michael Johnson said it best. You’re comparing apples to oranges when comparing between different olympic sports.

  3. 3 1430a
    August 15, 2008 at 15:00

    Obviously he is.but i do understand the fact that the previous greats had to do a lot of hard work than Phelps.i mean he gets a clean swimming pool and all the excellent facilities which the swimmers then would not get.i do hope he does go on to win all 8 golds.:)

  4. August 15, 2008 at 15:01

    Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian in History.He had won Many medals.I wonder Why the World had been unfair to my favourite world star Marian Jones.Jones had been my hero,A part from being a winner she is always ever smilling,I relly felt for her when she was ordered to return all the Olympic medals before she was sent to jail.

  5. 5 steve
    August 15, 2008 at 15:20

    I think it’s wrong of the BBC to do this as a topic before he even finishes. This is a good way to jinx him. AFTER the olympics you should do this topic.

  6. 6 Laura in Mukwonago,WI (formerly Minneapolis)
    August 15, 2008 at 15:53

    As much as i love Phelps- i agree that it’s hard to say he’s the greatest Olympian of all time… greatest swimmer, perhaps. But comparing swimming to other sports is a tricky thing to do.

    He is ridiculously impressive though.

    Laura in Mukwonago- formerly Minneapolis

  7. 7 sunyta
    August 15, 2008 at 16:30

    woh what an achievement 6 out of 6 and probably few more to his name.He is the most glorified olympian of this era.hope that there’s no mystery in his blood bcoz we had the greatest athletic champ the golden gal amd see where she ended after her triumph.

  8. 8 Brett
    August 15, 2008 at 16:33

    He’ll be the most decorated….

  9. August 15, 2008 at 16:40

    What about Murtola for one.

    You can name many others over the past who have shown brilliance. Take nothing away from Phelps, but if he keeps on then perhaps yeah, consider him such.

    But it all relative.

  10. August 15, 2008 at 16:40

    Who ever gets the most gold medals is a fair way to measure the greatest. The fact that he seems to be setting a new record faster than any other human was ever able to do adds to the assessment.

    He may have been gifted, but along with that went incredible hard training, dedication, and most important of all the spirit of a true champion. He is under incredible pressure, and those who compete against him say that they are just honored to be competing against him. He is very, very credible.

    What ever sport you compete in it is the rare human who can totally dwarf all other humans who are also gifted and keen, keen competitors. It is unlikely that another human can come along any time in the near future and surpass what this young man has been able to achieve.

    It is always a wonder to watch the best at whatever it is that he or she does.

    troop on the Oregon coast

  11. August 15, 2008 at 16:46

    Errr Jonathan…

    You’re confusing me with what Steve posted.

    I didn’t say that.

    In fact I didn’t state a position, I just noted that you don’t need to have low self-esteem to be a transsexual.

    Please re read earlier posts.

  12. August 15, 2008 at 16:47

    I certainly didn’t mention feathers.

  13. 13 Vijay Srao in Chattarnagar India
    August 15, 2008 at 17:51

    No,In Swimming an indivudual can win a lot of medals because there are four strokes plus relays and and mixed stroke events,therefore medals are devalued.
    One year Matt Biondi won 5 Gold medals ,no one seemed to notice In the USA,he could hardly get any sponsorship,this year America needs a white hero so Phelps should not have any problems with cashing in on his performance.
    The Olympics should have only Freestyle swimming events, leave the other strokes for the swimming World Championships and cut down on the number of relays..

  14. 14 Everyman
    August 15, 2008 at 18:07

    Phelps has remarkable talents, but this does not make him the greatest Olympic althete. It is impossible to compare althetes today with all the access to technology, training and support to athletes in earlier Olympics.

  15. 15 Corey
    August 15, 2008 at 18:19

    If the measure of greatness is the measure of medals then certainly! I wouldn’t dare say that he is stronger or faster than another olympian competing in other sports/events. But based solely on his medal accomplishments then he certainly is.

    I could go as far as to say though, that the olympian that has appeared at the most olympics is the greatest olympian. There may be several ways to determine who is greatest. But I would be subject to what is important to me. I would prefer to say that Merlene Ottey is the greatest olympian because I am mostly fascinated by Athletics and she has made Jamaica (and that other country) proud for her accomplishments there. Someone else who is moved by pole vaulting could mention Sergei Bubka for the standards he has set…

  16. 16 Anne
    August 15, 2008 at 18:26

    He may become the greatest Olympian SWIMMER for the moment. One needs to compare apples with apples and not anything else. I think he is great and well done to him if has done it without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. Let him be and let him enjoy the fruits of his hard work. At this point he is a good role model to young would-be sports persons.

    @ Vijay
    Please explain why medals are devalued because there are lots of different events.
    What does the fact that he is white have to do with any of it? Why does America need a white hero? Why is race an issue?
    Why exactly should freestyle be the only swimming event at the Olympics? If a swimmer is talented and is capable of swimming all strokes, why shouldn’t he/she? So a swimmer who is perhaps better at backstroke than freestyle won’t be able to complete.
    Perhaps the Olympics should consider doing away with multiple track events and only have one. Gee that would be interesting and very fair….

  17. 17 Vijay Srao in Chattarnagar India
    August 15, 2008 at 18:36

    No,Paavo Nurmi and Daley Thompson have better claims to be the grestest ever Olympian

  18. 18 Humberto, Washington, DC
    August 15, 2008 at 18:41

    I have heard several people comment that Phelps is not the greatest athlete because swimming is not as difficult as track events and that swimming; back stroke, butterfly and freestyle is similar… I would have to strongly disagree. Having competed at the basic level of high school track and swimming I could easily tell you that training for swimming is much more difficult . Granted running has a higher impact than swimming but running you are breathing constantly and in contrast swimming you can only breath between stroke. match up the training regiment between a runner and a swimmer and you will see difference in difficulty. Another argument I heard is that the suits they are using give them an edge. First of all they are all wear/have access to this technology so it is a even level playing field. and secondly do the track athletes still run on bear feat or with sandals?! no they use the latest technology as well.!

  19. 19 Venessa
    August 15, 2008 at 18:52

    As Brett said he will be highly decorated…He also has more opportunity for multiple medals compared to other events so I think it is a little unfair to say he is the greatest ever.

  20. 20 Katie Davidson
    August 15, 2008 at 18:56

    Several people are mentioning that there are multiple events in swimming. While that is true, many swimmers specialize in one stroke or one event. That fact is what makes Michael Phelps such a great athlete. He has mastered the technique of all of the strokes, and he’s the best at them. Also, many Olympians have more rest in between their events than Michael has had. Swimming that many heats, semi-finals and finals in such a short time is taxing on the body.

  21. 21 ryan
    August 15, 2008 at 18:56

    Steve Redgrave, a rower from the United Kingdom, is the greatest Olympian ever. He won 5 Olympic gold medals in five consecutive Olympics.

  22. 22 Anne
    August 15, 2008 at 18:56

    I’m with Humberto. Not only do you breathe between stokes but you have to pull/push (fight) your way through the water. (Resistance). Far more difficult.

  23. 23 Scott (M)
    August 15, 2008 at 18:58

    The are certainly less variables in swimming then many other sports in the Olympics.

    It is definitely and without any doubt easier to win multiple times in a sport of this nature.

  24. August 15, 2008 at 18:59

    Well clearly Superman would beat Batman in a fight because Batman doesn’t have superhuman powers…

    Is Michael Phelps the greatest ever Olympian? Is this now a program for middle school playgrounds?

  25. 25 Vijay Srao in Chattarnagar India
    August 15, 2008 at 19:19

    I am outraged that you could even suggest that Phelps used drugs to enhance his performance,too cyncial.
    Right now in the backstroke and breaststroke
    Butterfly technique is used a lot and both strokes are devalued.There are a lot of relays in swimming ,only four in track and field.
    One could skip, hop, run backwards or side stride instead of running forwards and then award medals for those techniques on the track.
    Track events are over different distances,whereas in swimming there is a lot of duplicaton.
    Freesyle is the fastest swimming technque.
    I am sure all the fastest hoping,skipping and backward runners would be equally disapointed as you backstroker.
    WHY IS RACE AN ISSUE? What planet do live on?
    Why does America need a white hero ,because of 9/11,Iraq,Afganistan and the financial crisis(housing ,fuel and food ,a lot of other sports are dominated by non whites.

    Freestyle is the fastest stroke

  26. 26 Anne
    August 15, 2008 at 19:59

    @ Vijay

    I am outraged that you accuse me of suggesting that Phelps uses druges to enhance his performance. I used the word IF….

    So what if free style is the fastest stoke, why does it have to be the only stroke in the Olympics for swimming?

    America hasn’t made him a ‘white’ hero, the media has made him a hero.

    We will ignore your comments about skipping, hopping, backwards running and side stride. Track is duplication, all they are doing is running, also over different distance.

    Wake up and smell the roses!!!

    PS. I think track and field is a great sport, as are all sports.

  27. 27 Venessa
    August 15, 2008 at 20:00

    Well said Meagan!

  28. 28 jade
    August 15, 2008 at 20:06

    I watched a short documentary about Phelps’s life. He only does 3 things all day: eat (like a horse), sleep, swim.

    How many Olympians have this privilege? Like movie stars, athletes in US enjoy higher social status. In many countries, athletes are not so important. They keep fulltime jobs and training come second or third.

  29. 29 Venessa
    August 15, 2008 at 20:11

    Jade ~

    You make a fine point. If your entire life is focused on just one thing of course you will be much better than your opponents. Natural talent plays a role but having the ability to be an athlete for a full time job is a definite advantage.

  30. 30 Rob
    August 15, 2008 at 21:20

    Of course he isn’t the greatest ever Olympian. Yes he is extremely talented, but I don’t think that is enough.

    The point has been made many times already, but swimming so many different strokes allows for many more medals, so of course a swimmer is going to win more medals than a runner.

    In track events the objective is to cover the distance (be it 100m or 10,000m as fast as possible. That is it. Be the fastest.

    In swimming it is not purely about covering the distance as fast as possible. Would anyone seriously consider an Olympic track event where athletes had to run backwards? What about a race where the athletes compete on their hands and knees? No, because it’s ridiculous.

    You could even consider the high jump as two different events. Before the ‘invention’ of the Fosbury Flop, jumpers threw themselves over the bar differently. How many of you defending the inclusion of so many swimming disciplines would like to see one gold medal awarded for the highest jump achieved via previous jumping methods, and a second gold medal awarded for the highest jump achieved via the Fosbury Flop?

  31. 31 jade
    August 15, 2008 at 22:44

    In running events, there can be sportwear enhancements but it’s still the runner against gravity and own physical make-up. There is a limit as to how fast limbs of normal people can move and the athletes who can exceed the limit are special. Can we measure the amount of calories burnt per event? I think a truly great track athlete can either run faster or run longer – a combination of physical capacity, technical training and mental conditioning.

  32. August 15, 2008 at 23:09

    Guys, stop this whole thing about steroids and race. I am as black as you can be. However, I am soooooo proud or Micahel Phelps. He is an inspiration for so many. His training regiment is mind bogling. 12 hours in the water a day? This reminds me of Michael Jordan who would spend hours in the gym after an NBA game. That is what makes a great athlete; focus, dedication and hardwork.

    As far as him being the greatest Olympian, I think we are comparing apples to oranges. Greatest athletes have to compete in more than one sport. Youngsters, that is why the decathlon (and any other sport combining more than one discipline)generate gratest athletes.


  33. 33 Dennis
    August 16, 2008 at 00:51

    I think that Michael Phelps, going to be the greatest ever


  34. 34 Roberto
    August 16, 2008 at 03:39


    ——–Track has a myriad of events. 100/200/400/800/1500/5000/10000, 110/400 hurdles, 3000 steeple chase, Marathon, relay400/1600 plus the long/high/triple jump are variants of running and the 20/50K walking yielding 18 running type events total.

    Swimming has 16. The comments by Mr. Johnson need to be taken into context, perhaps with a grain of salt and a large shot of humor.

    The guestion of greatness is completely subjective and mainly fodder for the lineal thinking types who can only visualize things in a straight line of order. Others of us see the full picture in all it’s dimensions.

    Phelps most assuredly is a great athlete who is putting on great performances in one of the most competitive sports there is, a difficult sport to master much less in all it’s variants as he has done. To put it in context, in the world, there are many, many more folks who can come to within 50% of Mr. Johnson on the track than could ever hope match what Phelps does.

  35. August 16, 2008 at 08:55

    i think the first torch bearer of the first ever olympics or the first marathon winner of those games would be classified as the best ever olympian.founders are always the greatest,no matter how slow they might have been.


  36. 36 Rick
    August 16, 2008 at 10:01

    did anyone see the finish in Phelps’ 7th gold? slo-mo of the touch looks awfully suspect to me. what’s going on?

  37. 37 Paul W
    August 16, 2008 at 11:04

    Greatest EVER Olympian is Sir Steven Redgrave. He dominated his sport for 5 Olympics, and not a whiff of steroid abuse surrounded him.

  38. 38 Vijay Srao in Chattarnagar India
    August 16, 2008 at 14:44

    Phelps is definitely a great athlete,the greatest ever Olympian ,No.
    Why even mention drugs?
    “wake up and smell the roses” please could you explain this modern US mixed metaphor to me,don’t quite comprehend the cultural context.
    @ Roberto
    Yeah ,I am definitely swimming at the shallow end of the pool,How many dimensions do you think in 1,2 or3?
    You should try linear or logical thinking before you knock it.

    looked good to me ,however I only saw a slow mo not a super slow mo.

  39. August 16, 2008 at 15:45

    Are there more events that include running than swimming?

    The arguement that swimming has more events seems not to bear out. From the 100 meter dash to the marathon seems a lot to me.

    They say the decathalon event stands for the best all around athlete because there are so many different skills required. Still Phelps is something mighty unusual.


  40. 40 Vijay Srao in Chattarnagar India
    August 16, 2008 at 16:41

    Well the thing is that there are four “flavours” of swimming and only one “flavour” of running therefore more opportunities over the same distance.
    Phelps uses a lot of his butterfly technique in the IMs (used be against the rules).
    There used to be a standing long jump and a running long jump,now there is only the running long jump.

    After seeing Bolt win the 100m in 9.69s Phelps feats are more in perspective.

  41. 41 Roberto
    August 16, 2008 at 17:15

    Well the thing is that there are four “flavours” of swimming and only one “flavour” of running therefore

    ———- Already shown to be completely false.

    18 events featuring variants of running vs 16 for swimming. There are at least 3 “flavours” of running.

    Swimming also lacks a marathon type event unless you want to count the 10K open water mens/womens held in the Atlantic ocean off of Seville, Spain. I believe those medals will be counted as part of the Olympic totals.

    That would make running balanced with swimming, 18 all.

  42. 42 Paul
    August 16, 2008 at 22:55

    Phelps he’s not the greatest Olympian of all time his the greatest swimmer. im sure that the 100m runners could run backwards and run sidewards, then run 33.333333 m of each. swimming is a joke front crawl is the fastest stroke and that is the only medal that should be available. its boring not because one guy has won so many medals but he has won them for the same event its just the way his got from the start to the finish line in each thats not the same.

  43. 43 Vijay
    August 17, 2008 at 04:50

    I heard an explanation,it was that the Serbian touched first but Phelps pressed the pad at the end of the lane first(1.2mm(he hit the buzzzer first).
    What the people on this thread are trying to tell you is that there are four strokes in swimming Which cover the same distances(except for freestyle which has a few more)plus a lot of relays and the IMs.
    In track athletics there are many different distances to compete over. Walking events are over different distances compared to the running events (apart from the womens 10k)The steeplechase is over 3000m .

  44. 44 Pallab Barua
    August 17, 2008 at 05:50

    I have read about, some physical advantages he has got in the form of a broader chest, lager feet etc. Will it be right, to dicuss someone who has an unfair advantage above others.

  45. 45 Nyambati Aori
    August 17, 2008 at 07:35

    If you ever loved men of talent, vigour and aggresiveness in competitions, then you wont fail to appreceiate the fact that Phelps is not only a Hero but also the greatest olympian. He’s fine.

  46. 46 Emile Barre
    August 17, 2008 at 13:06

    In the Before Drugs era it would be Jesse Owens. In the Post Drugs era it is Michael Phelps.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: