Michael Phelps is not the greatest Olympic athlete in history

SportsTrack and FieldHistoryArts and CultureMichael PhelpsAllyson FelixChicago Tribune

Could everyone please stop hyperventilating about Michael Phelps?

Yes, he now has won more gold medals than anyone in Olympic history.

No, that does not make him the greatest Olympic athlete in history.

In fact, he doesn't even make my top five.

He is No. 6 with a bullet, moving up the charts like a hot pop song.

Ahead of him?

1. Carl Lewis, U.S., track and field.

2. Paavo Nurmi, Finland, track and field.

3. Larisa Latynina, Soviet Union, gymnastics.

4. Birgit Fischer-Schmidt, Germany, kayak.

5. Steven Redgrave, United Kingdom, rowing.

Why is Phelps sixth?

It is easy to win multiple medals in swimming.

The sport is far more forgiving on the body than track or gymnastics.

And Phelps does not yet have the long-term record of the others.

Lewis won nine gold medals, four in the 1984 Olympics and four straight in one event, the long jump.

Nurmi won nine gold medals at distances from 1,500 to 10,000 meters over three Olympics. He likely would have won more had he not been declared ineligible after 1928 under rules that demanded Olympians be amateurs.

Latynina won nine gold medals and 18 total medals over three Olympics.

Fischer-Schmidt won her first of eight gold medals in 1980 and her last 24 years later as a 42-year-old mother of two. She won three for the old East Germany and five for the unified Germany. She won in singles, doubles and fours. She also won four silvers.

Redgrave won gold medals in five consecutive Olympics while rowing in three different boat types.

I asked Phelps on Thursday if winning the most golds makes him the greatest of all time, and he sounded like a man wisely focused on the present.

"I have no idea," he said. "I just get in the water and swim. That's the only thing I think about."

I asked Olympic historian David Wallechinsky the same question, and he ranked Nurmi and Lewis as co-leaders.

"I think Phelps needs one more Olympics to join them," Wallechinsky said.

Over 12 years, Lewis won two gold medals in the 100 meters, one in the 200, two on the sprint relay and an unprecedented four straight in the long jump, an event in which the impact on the body of the run-up and takeoff has been likened to falling off a truck at 25 mph.

"What Lewis did is extraordinary. He is No. 1," said France's Marie-Jose Perec, one of three runners to win the 200 and 400 meters in the same Olympics.

"You can't compare track and swimming. In swimming, you can recover. You can do five races in a day and get world records in all of them. That's impossible in our sport."

Don't try to argue that Phelps has been part of world-record performances in his first five events.

New pool and suit technology have made swimming's world records meaningless, with 18 record performances through Thursday in the Olympics alone. Just four world records have fallen in track and field all year.

Swimming allows an athlete to race two finals in 29 minutes, as U.S. Olympian Ryan Lochte planned Friday morning.

Track and field is so much more physically demanding that neither Allyson Felix nor Sanya Richards dared a 200-400 double after the Olympic schedule put the second round of the 200 within three hours of the 400 final.

"Swimming is pressure off your body, where we are pounding on it," Felix said.

Swimming offers three relays with the risk of a false start minimal. Some sprinters run both of track's longer relays, the 400 and 1,600, but the exchanges on the sprint relay are so dicey Lewis lost a certain medal in 1988 when other U.S. runners botched a baton pass in a preliminary round.

If Olympic track had an 800-meter relay, an event in which Lewis was part of a world-record performance, he probably would have won at least two more gold medals.

Three of swimming's four strokes – everything but the breaststroke – might as well be the same. Otherwise, how could backstroker Matt Grevers say he barely trained that stroke before winning an Olympic silver medal in the 100? Nearly every good freestyler can be a good butterflyer, and vice-versa.

You don't see any 100-meter runners in the mile, or any milers in the long jump.

Don't get the wrong idea. Track athletes have great respect for what Phelps has accomplished.

"It's inspiring to watch in amazement at everything he's doing," Felix said.

But he's not the most amazing Olympian ever.

Hersh covers the Olympics for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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