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AztecLady sent me this very interesting opinion piece by MSNBC’s Michael Ventre.

Basically, he’s questioning whether Michael Phelps can really be called, the greatest athlete ever. One of the greatest, perhaps, but the greatest?

Ventre writes:

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.

I think that the media are always too quick to label people. It seems to be part of their whole, build ’em up to knock ’em down strategy.

Ventre continues:

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.

He makes some very valid points methinks.

Look, it’s great that Phelps has won all these gold medals, but surely his achievement needs to be put into the right context?

Greatest athlete ever? Not for me I’m afraid. I’d rather put him in the category of greatest swimmer ever. But then, I’m a cynical Brit.

What say you?


  • I agree–greatest swimmer perhaps, not greatest athlete. I said the same thing to my dh last night.


  • joanne
    August 17
    8:16 pm

    There was a discussion of this on the bbc.tv website. Several agreed that perhaps a more appropriate title for him might be “most successful olympic athlete.” It fits better with his accomplishments. How can you compare a swimmer to a basketball player or gymnast? You can’t. It’s like comparing an apple to an orange or a romance novel to a dictionary. It’s a silly argument.

    However, I will no way diminish his accomplishments as I’ve seen many online doing. If it’s so unremarkable, why hasn’t anyone else done it in the past 36 years? What he’s done is truly amazing and deserving of praise. Plus, even with his average/geeky face, he fills that speedo quite nicely.

    But then, I’m just your average American who screamed, “Go! Go! Go!” at my tv last night like a madwoman.


  • Sam
    August 17
    8:28 pm

    I have to agree too. I would think a ‘greatest athlete’ would be an all around one, not a one event one.

    Decathletes? The iron man competition guys (or is the iron man thing a decathlon?).



  • Greatest Olympic Athlete. No question.


  • Cynical Brit you may be, but I agree with you. Greatest swimmer ever? Absolutely! Greatest athlete? Not so sure. No offense but I’m thinking not.


  • Greatest body ever. Have you seen him in that Merman costume? wow.
    But then I’m the dirtiest old woman ever. LOL


  • Most successful olympic athletic makes sense. But ‘greatest’ suggest something more than a medal count. I think sometimes a single win has great value, like the first sub-4 minute mile. And sometime people prove their greatness without even getting a medal, like those who voluntarily give up the chance to win a medal as part of an ethical boycott.

    That said, can;t we have just a few days of being happy for him without starting to pick it all apart?


  • Emmy
    August 18
    1:54 am

    Phelps swimming is a beautiful thing to watch. And he has an omg sexxay body that I’d volunteer to dry off with my tongue after every swim, even if his face is cabbage.

    Greatest Athlete Evar? Nah. Super talented in his chosen sport though.


  • This kind of reminds me of when people ask if Tiger Woods is the greastest Athlete ever. To which I reply never. He certainly has the potential to be the greatest golfer ever if it isn’t already. Just like Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer ever. If there was a competition that would take each top athlete from their respective sport and they’d all compete against each other in similar activities only then could we determine who was the greastest. But since we don’t have anything like that, we can only speculate.


  • But since we don’t have anything like that, we can only speculate

    That reminds me of a sports show they had on TV many years ago now where they would get athletes from all different sports and they would all do the same ‘sports’ in a contest to determine the best. Dang I wish I could remember it now. I think it was on on Saturday afternoons. But I do remember the one year the ‘best’ athlete was a Canadian Soccer player. He kicked ass against football players, baseball players, bowlers (snicker not to disparage bowlers though), hockey players etc.


  • I just blogged about Phelps and his body type in relation to romance writers (trust me on this!) Please feel free to drop in and opinionate. I’m geniunely curious about what people’s responses will be.


  • Bonnie L.
    August 18
    3:02 am

    I really don’t think Phelps views himself as the greatest athlete ever, either. If you watch interviews with him, you get the feeling that this feat was just a goal he had set for himself and that he is stoked that all that hard work paid off. I think all of the praise that the talking heads have poured on him kind of puts him off and that he just plays along.


  • Kinda reminds me of the “t-rex: predator or scavenger” war going on. I’d go with Swimmer. I’m pretty sure Jim Thorpe has Greatest athlete ever all wrapped up.



  • Ebony
    August 18
    4:48 am

    He’s a great athlete but ever–I think not. He deserves the medals because he worked hard for them–a testament that hard work does pay off.


  • I think it’s very difficult to compare in the Olympics where you have many different sports and perhaps swimming is the only discipline where you’d stand a chance of gaining 8 golds in 8 events, because you have the opportunity to enter that many events.

    I do think he’s a brilliant swimmer and it is one hell of an achievement and has to be one of the standout moments of this Olympics.

    But I think Steven Redgraves achievement of winning 5 golds in 5 consecutive Olympics (1984 – 2000) is just as remarkable.


  • Dawn
    August 18
    12:41 pm

    I’d say greatest swimmer ever (so far), cos down the line some other young whippersnapper is gonna come along and smash his record medal haul.


  • Michelle Monkou
    August 18
    1:51 pm

    Commercial advertising like superlatives. So naming him the greatest athlete works to blast his face on every product. There are many people in history with “greatest” in their titles, and outside of boxing – seems all boxers like to claim they are the greatest, the titles tend to be thrusted upon these people.

    As someone alluded to Tiger – it’s because he has brought more money to the sport and more viewers than anyone else. When he doesn’t play, they (sponsors, investors, etc.) lose money.

    Mary Lou Retton- the gymnast – that toothy smile = dollars.

    Michael Jordan with basketball – same thing.

    This is no longer about the Olympics, but his brand, whether he wants it or not or likes it or not.


  • joanne
    August 19
    2:23 am

    Swimming isn’t the only category of olympic sports that an athlete can enter into multiple events. Track and field athletes can compete in many different events. So can gymnasts. There are 8 different events in men’s rowing. Even most swimmers don’t enter as many events as Michael Phelps, never mind winning them. Most specialize. That’s not to say he’s “better” than any of the athletes in track & field, rowing, gymnastics, or any other sport. I just wanted to point out that, while swimming does have the opportunity to win several medals, it isn’t the only sport that does. Maybe after what Phelps did, we’ll start seeing more athletes enter multiple events rather than specializing in just one or two.


  • Richard Palmer 6B
    August 19
    7:33 am

    Michael Phelps eats heaps of pie and i like pie pieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee


  • Andrea Sommers
    August 19
    2:59 pm

    I agree, that he’s the greatest swimmer, but maybe not the greatest athlete. And he worked hard, trained hard for it, and his technique is good, so he deserves all those gold medals. And I like how he’s so humble about it.


  • Barbara B.
    August 20
    12:04 am

    Kristie(J) said-
    “That reminds me of a sports show they had on TV many years ago now where they would get athletes from all different sports and they would all do the same ’sports’ in a contest to determine the best. Dang I wish I could remember it now.”

    That was Superstars (ABC), Kristie. I thought I was the only one who remembered that show. The best athletes in the world competing against each other in iron-man or decathalon type events. Those guys were fucking sexy. I especially liked speed skaters, cowboys, and Olympic sprinters.


  • SusanL
    August 20
    8:12 am

    I agree Michael Phelps can be called the world’s greatest swimmer, but not the greatest athlete. There was some discussion a few years ago that Mark Spitz’s record would not be beaten because most swimmers specialize in 1 or 2 strokes. Maybe everyone is rethinking that now. On a different note, I really like MP, his mother and sisters 🙂

    Kristie(J) & Barbara B – Too funny, but I was thinking about that show the other day. I actually remember a single athlete – a French runner (maybe) named Guy Drut.


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